The storm of indignation that inspired Harry Shearer’s “The Big Uneasy” turns out to be an ill wind for viewers, who will find themselves drowning in facts and fatigue by the time this Hurricane Katrina docu blows itself out. Well-intended and informative, but also unfocused, unwieldy and a little smug, pic pales in comparison to the really first-rate films on the subject (“When the Levees Broke,” “Trouble the Water”), even if it’s more of a pre-Katrina movie, arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers set New Orleans up for disaster and has never taken the blame. Pic is in limited release.
The thesis of “The Big Uneasy” is that New Orleans didn’t suffer a “natural disaster” — a phrase Shearer has a variety of network news readers reciting in the days following the August 2005 storm — but rather, “a disaster caused by people,” according to UC Berkeley’s Robert Bea, one of the experts and academics who undertook independent investigations into the breached levees and found the Army Corps wanting. Nothing new is revealed here, certainly not to New Orleanians, but Shearer is striving to give wider exposure to what he and others see as governmental /military incompetence.
As anyone familiar with his work is aware, Shearer is more than capable of biting, witty sarcasm in pursuit of sociopolitical points (as on his radio program “Le Show”). Here, however, the polymath host-cum-helmer takes a schoolmarmish approach as he glumly introduces the very learned heads who talk about the Army Corps’ ineptitude, recalcitrance and history of doing the wrong thing whenever possible. (Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald is particularly good at explaining the Corps’ dubious history, especially regarding water projects.) The presentation has all the vibrancy of the Dead Sea, and it only becomes clear how turgid it all is when the arrival of John Goodman suddenly gets the pulse racing.
Goodman, as pumped up as he is, has the thankless task of introducing the “Ask a New Orleanian” segments, in which bewildering questions are posed to a table full of locals (including Shearer). The questions they address: “Why are New Orleanians sitting on their butts waiting for the government to rebuild their city?” “Isn’t New Orleans just a depopulated, Disneyfied version of its former self?” “Why does our tax money have to go toward solving their problems?” “Aren’t parts of the city still under water?”
The panel treats the questions as absurd, which they are. But who’s asking them? The public, presumably, but they’re such silly, uninformed questions, they might actually be off-putting to the very audience Shearer is trying to reach.
The Corps spokespeople are either mealymouthed or not talking — “We welcome constructive criticism,” says the Corps’ Col. Robert Sinkler, although according to “The Big Uneasy,” they either ignore the advice or use it to sandbag their critics. Ivor Van Heerden, former head of the LSU Hurricane Center, lost his job for what the movie construes as his condemnation of Army engineering, and the movie as a whole makes a convincing case that New Orleans was a victim of man rather than an act of God. Auds, however, will find themselves praying for daylight by the time it’s over, their levees of patience having long since been breached.
Tech credits are adequate, the use of Google maps and CGI a welcome way to understanding what happened during Katrina, but the very obvious cut-and-paste editing of interviews skirts journalistic propriety.