Well-known actor/author/satirist/mockumentarian Harry Shearer plays it straight, creating a film deluged in fact as to why New Orleans nearly drowned in August of 2005. Dive in – says Kimberly Gadette – but the water's far from fine.
The Big Uneasy's title, a wordplay on New Orleans' nickname "The Big Easy," is a misnomer. Uneasy? As if to allude to the city's discomfort and/or our potential reaction in viewing this documentary? Likening a hurricane to a raindrop, the term is oddly perverse. Not when $14 billion has recently been poured into a new and improved flood system for New Orleans that's destined to fail. Not when nearly 100 more US cities could suffer a similar fate at the hands of a governmental agency that makes George W. Bush's FEMA look efficient. How about The Big Bungle? The Big Governmental Bloat? The Big-Budgeted, Highly-Inadequate Mess?
And it is this tame little title that bespeaks to the film's primary crack in its proverbial sea wall: it's too damn polite.
That said, writer/director and part-time New Orleans resident Shearer presents us with a scrupulously-detailed study of the real "engineers" of the 2005 New Orleans flood, the Army Corps of Engineers who have been operating under blanket immunity since 1928. We learn that this particular agency is not only responsible for Louisiana, but that they are the agency responsible for "investigating, developing and maintaining the nation's water and related environmental resources. Our mission also includes emergency response." Whew, thank heaven for that.
As journalist Michael Grunwald (Washington Post, Time) states in the film, "What sets them [the Army Corps] apart is their penchant to do the wrong thing," and "They're pretty open in the way they go about not doing the right thing."
Here, not doing the right thing involved the design and construction of shoddy levees that resulted in 53 breaks, ultimately bringing about a flood that engulfed 80% of the city. The film's experts contend that had the barriers been built appropriately, the flooding would have been limited to a mere 20%.
As laid out by two scientific investigative teams, one from University of California at Berkeley (led by Dr. Robert Bea), and another from Louisiana State University and the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center (led by Dr. Ivor van Heerden), the film depicts computer imagery illustrating the storm's ravaging effects as it first broke through the levees and swept through the city, graphs, forensic discovery, as well as multiple testimony from a variety of experts. (Shearer notes that due to Dr. van Heerden's ongoing criticism of the Army Corps in the film, he was warned, then subsequently fired from LSU.) The third principal expert, "whistleblower" Maria Garzino, is an employee of the Army Corps, whose job entailed working with and testing the new water pump system that was supposed to protect against future floods. Starting in 2006, she took her concerns about the defective machinery to her superiors, to oversight agencies and ultimately to the US Office of Special Counsel, who has since backed up her findings. In a particularly dramatic moment in the film, we learn that even though she and the Special Counsel sent reports to President Obama and the Congress in 2009, they have yet to receive a response. (In the April 14 IndieMovies' interview with Shearer, he tells us that the silence continues to this date.)
However, for a city that is known for its exuberance and passion, as well as its defiance in the face of all manner of storms, this film is curiously bloodless. While Shearer attempts to bring in a different rhythm by having John Goodman play an oily quiz show host in break-away segments called "Ask a New Orleanian," the extreme style is jarring. We needed true bite, not a few minutes of a fake sideshow. He's obviously making fun of stupid questions, but who's the target? Us? Additionally, given that the ensuing answers from a group of residents is so sincere, the over-the-top set-up doesn't work.
As the intermittent host, Shearer briefly appears on camera in a white Panama hat, reflective as he strolls the streets of his beloved adopted city. But as he stated in prior interviews, he objected to coming out from behind the camera, not wishing to draw focus to himself. This, however, may not have been the best idea.
Fact-based documentaries such as these walk a precarious line: they have to produce detailed, expert information, distilled for the general public, conveyed in a manner that will keep the audience engaged. Graphics can help, but after awhile, we need more. More drama ... whether it be conflict on camera, big personalities, sheer outrage or huge handfuls of humor.
Big personality? Outrage? Humor? What Shearer's documentary ironically cries out for ... are big, impassioned doses of Shearer himself.
Rating on a scale of 5 flow charts: 3.5
Release date: rolling out through the US, February-September 2011; UK: tbd
Written and directed by: Harry Shearer
Featuring: Harry Shearer, Dr. Ivor van Heerden, Dr. Robert Bea, Maria Garzino, Michael Grunwald, Karen Durham-Aguilera, John Goodman
Running time: 98 minutes