There’s one valuable thing that “Flint” does early on: Acknowledge that “It’s not the whole story.” The latest movie from Lifetime, starring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Betsy Brandt, and Marin Ireland, isn’t purporting to be a comprehensive overview of the process that lead to the city’s pipelines leaching toxic chemicals into the Michigan city’s drinking supply.
But acknowledging that there’s more to this story only underlines how far the film goes in telling a standalone film of its own. While there’s some undeniable human drama playing out in the story that “Flint” tells, it rarely rises above being a vehicle for delivering information about the fallout from a crisis that still persists.
“Flint” follows the experiences of a handful of motivated women who rally to expose the growing risk of the city’s water. LeeAnne Walters (Brandt) does it for her children. Melissa Mays (Ireland) does it for her family and the seizure-inducing side effects she’s experiencing herself. Iza Banks (Latifah) does it for her daughter, whose lost pregnancy shows that this could be something to affect future generations, not just the current one.
Both as individuals and as an eventual united voice, “Flint” tracks these women’s efforts to push for changes in local government response to lead-heavy tap water and murky brown runoff spewing out from shower heads. The film hinges on a regular series of public hearings, whether city council meetings or smaller town hall venues, where LeeAnne and the rest can deliver fiery monologues about the need for acknowledgment and policy revision.
Those impassioned pleas in public venues often come at the expense of a better understanding of who these women really are. With 80 minutes of runtime and a quartet of storylines intertwining, there’s not much we can glean from lives and experiences, except from their relationship to their part in correcting this ongoing tragedy. We know that Melissa is a musician, LeeAnne is a stay-at-home mom, and that Nayyirah Shariff (Scott) once lead a community youth group before funding was pulled. Aside from that, there’s not much that keys into the idea that these are based on real stories of actual individuals, rather than characters who just happen to be in the middle of a national news story.
Much of “Flint” plays out like a public radio report come to life, with much of the dialogue between these women doubling as explanatory reporting. To be sure, part of this process was them learning together about the specific factual horrors of the Flint water supply, but a lot of these conversations feel like they’re lifted from interviews with journalists, rather than heart-to-hearts with each other. “Time Magazine called him ‘The Plumbing Professor,’” one character explains before meeting with an expert. (Incidentally, the article that the movie is based on came from that same publication and is currently behind a paywall.)
Visually, “Flint” seems designed to be presented as simply as possible, so as not to distract from the meticulous discussions of water treatment numbers and the dramatic verbiage inside classified EPA memos. Occasionally, director Bruce Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies”) zooms in slowly on a front-porch conversation to add some interpersonal tension, but the battle lines are drawn early on between citizens and government officials and the script doesn’t deviate from there. When these characters are locked in a literal life-or-death battle, there’s a natural drama that comes from that fight, which makes certain gestures like literally tearing up a waiver agreement or explicitly labeling “smoking guns” feel like an occasional unnecessary extra layer.
Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a short sequence in a diner where Flint residents are talking with each other — it’s a small glimpse of what a better film might have looked like. There’s a certain spark in that tiny insight into the community at large that hews closer to a more enlightening story, one that doesn’t serve as a direct, slightly fictionalized translation of reporting that’s being done elsewhere.
This film comes in the middle of a revitalized debate about what the government owes to protect and secure the health of its constituents. There are certainly echoes in “Flint” of a number of stories going on in national politics, of federal agencies being stripped of environmental protection funding and cost-saving measures having dramatic, widespread effects on the American populace. “Flint” leaves those parallels mostly implied. But as a result, some of the most effective scenes in the movie show the logistics of activism, of turning anger into action rather than simply professing a need to do something.
With a few minutes left in “Flint,” it gives the possibility that it might radically subvert stories of this kind and avoid the usual triumphant ending by explaining that there’s still plenty of work to be done to rectify this issue. But a movie designed to motivate can’t be fatalistic. A film like this that dramatizes real-life accomplishments for the purposes of issue advocacy, made directly for a TV network, can’t end without a little bit of uplift.
“Flint” doesn’t absolve anyone of their part in creating this civic crisis. (Each government official is introduced by name with accompanying on-screen text, a very direct way of placing blame.) But its basic presentation of this story almost renders the film itself meaningless. There’s not much here as a standalone piece of work, but it might be able to engage an audience with an ongoing problem. The true test of its efficacy will be how much it motivates viewers after the credits roll. It’s an admirable aim, but the project itself feels disposable.
“Flint” premieres Saturday, Oct. 28 at 8:00 p.m. on Lifetime.