WHAT LIES UPSTREAM
Director: Cullen Hoback
Screenwriter: Cullen Hoback
Cast: Martin Riese, Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Mona Hanna-Attisha, Cullen Hoback, Randy Huffman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/13/17
Opens: January 12, 2018 in NY at Maysles Documentary Center, & LA; January 16, 2018 VOD/DVD
America is open for business! So sayeth Donald Trump in one of his inimitable tweets. So, you got a problem with that? There certainly is one, because Big Business, so nurtured by Trump and Republicans who are heading so far right that they’ll eventually fall off the earth, is destroying the cultural margins of our nation. Government has a role to play in regulating business, since people, like you and me, may love their products (I, for example, would like to order half of Amazon’s output) but can be seriously harmed by what the big guys are producing.
That’s where Cullen Hoback’s documentary comes in. Hoback, whose “Monster Camp” is an enactment of the game World of Warcraft, now deals not with fantasy but with deadly reality. The reality is that the bad guys in “What Lies Upstream,” a great many lobbyists, politicians, corporations and even agencies whose job is to protect us consumers, are villains. Hoback, a slim,youthful fellow who appears in a great many shots as he interviews a wide range of people, focuses principally on the pollution of water. Flint, Michigan may be the best known case of dirty water nationally, its culprits indicted for corruption because perhaps that’s the residence of many poor African-Americans. But West Virginia, whose coal mining is loved by workers but not by people drinking its water, is a notable case of political failure.
One cannot help thinking about Donald J. Trump, who is pictured in the concluding moments, the guy who has recently dismantled the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, because its bureaucrats have had the nerve to try to protect our air and water. Hoback is polite to the people whose work he abhors thereby getting them to answer (or divert attention) from his queries, rarely walking away in the middle of a query. The actor/director/writer sprang into action when he heard that the good people of West Virginia may love coal but they’re not too keen on their tap water, which has a strange odor. Research showed that MCHM, a chemical used for processing coal, has been leaking from rusted pipes at a business called Freedom Industries. Though there were laws on the books designed to prevent this, somehow the people responsible for enforcing the regulations, are not doing their jobs.
The most shocking image of this film shows lobbyists, those durn people who are often recruited from the ranks of politicians when they retire, are virtually writing the laws. They sit around in a room and appear to actually draft the legislation that conservative lawmakers vote to pass, even though the legislators may not have even read the bills. If you’ve been keeping up with CNN and MSNBC, the good guys, you are aware that nowadays, most officials in Congress do not read the door-stopping manuscripts such as the 477-page proposed tax bill. The majority leader in each house tells them, it seems, that the tax code will benefits principally the upper ten percent of Americans. The ayes have it.
Hoback builds his case step by step as though defending a principle of ethical philosophy, and though we realize he is biased in favor of the people and not the corporations and politicians, we are convinced that there is something rotten not only in the water but in the state of today’s America. You might expect that even the fish want to be caught and put out of their misery.
Unrated. 84 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B+