In “What Lies Upstream,” the documentarian Cullen Hoback begins by investigating the 2014 chemical spill that left 300,000 West Virginians without safe tap water. The resulting movie, national in scope, lays out damning (if not always cohesive) arguments about how government regulators tend to defer to the companies they are supposed to supervise, how legislative fixes aren’t permanent and how mandated safety checks are useless if they aren’t performed or performed properly.
Some compelling camera personalities emerge. Randy Huffman, at the time the secretary of the State Department of Environmental Protection in West Virginia, wants to “give the benefit of the doubt” to organizations. When Mr. Hoback, who has read a report suggesting that tens of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act went uninvestigated in the state, cites that number to him, Mr. Huffman brushes it off as “not that many.”
Dr. Rahul Gupta, who begins the movie as executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and becomes the state’s commissioner of health and human resources, is presented as a dogged health advocate who is cowed as he rises in stature.
Throughout the movie, Mr. Hoback looks for a smoking gun — a revelation that will explain pollution not only in West Virginia, but also in Flint, Mich. and elsewhere — and seems to think he finds one. But the problems appear systemic, tied to human nature and economics.