The Big Uneasy (Review)

Harry Shearer looks at why the New Orleans levies failed

The compelling argument that the catastrophic 2005 flooding of New Orleans was caused not so much by Hurricane Katrina but rather by negligence in the construction and operation of levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been reported in newspapers and magazines. But because the information has come out in dribs and drabs after the fact, it hasn’t really made much of an impact on the national public consciousness, much less produce a sense of outrage.

So Harry Shearer, the This Is Spinal Tap actor and humorist (and part-time Crescent City resident), has decided to get serious and put all the story elements together in this (literally) muckraking documentary. It’s a worthy effort, filled with great insight into the making of the flood and the troubling revelations about the arrogant way the Corps does business and is protected by the U.S. Congress. But it also shows the limits of a single 98-minute film to clearly and easily (and visually) keep track of such a complex story. That’s a nice way to say it’s easy to get lost following the many points it makes, and the editing doesn’t help.

It could use more narration by Shearer and less jumping around among interviewees. But there is an excellent graphic, at the film’s beginning, about how the levees were breached, where they collapsed from shoddy construction, and how that caused a chain reaction of flooding. And the section about the environmental hazards of a boondoggle of a Corps project called “Mr. Go” (Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) is downright frightening.

The core of the film consists of interviews with Ivor Van Heerden, head of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, who led a state investigation critical of the Corps and appears to have been fired for it; Robert Bea, a UC-Berkeley professor who led a National Science Foundation investigation also critical of the Corps; and Maria Garzino, a Corps engineer who has criticized the quality of new pumps used to protect against future flooding. Grade: B

Opens May 13 at Kenwood Theatre.
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