The Big Uneasy Reviews
Well-know comedian and Simpsons voice actor Harry Shearer's film concerned with the 2005 flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrine shone a new light on what was originally hailed as a completely 'natural disaster' by the world's media. Exposing a flaw in the methods used by the US Army Corps Engineers in building the city's defences (the flaw being essentially they did not build them to adequately anticipate Katrina) and accusing them of ignoring certain research reports as well as various failures in their rescue procedures, Shearer's many talking heads crafted a classic framework for a major Hollywood movie as a picture of the struggling golden few operating against the darkly bureaucratic tyrannies of modern governmental organisations emerged.
And many of these stories were interesting, even suspicious in the depictions of nefarious dealings they alluded to - a particular case stood out of a university lecturer who spoke out and was seemingly consequently sacked from his institution once that institution had received a $12 million donation from a government agency - but one did have to wonder how much of the whole picture the audience was receiving from Shearer's film. As academics and leaders in their field unanimously supported his side of the story, and their few opponents allowed air space came in the form of jockish army officers and one spectacularly sinister female engineer who wore sunglasses through the whole of her interview, sporting an ominous broken arm and a voice that sounded like a million past smoked Marlboro Reds, the lack of coherent, unbiased debate became palpable. Shearer seemed to have a side of a story which he was willing to perpetuate at any lengths so that its 'truth' may be officially created via his film.
Supposed amusing interludes came in the form of 'Ask a New Orleanian' where Shearer's showbiz mate John Goodman posed questions that were deemed 'outrageous' (such as 'why don't you rebuild New Orleans further inland?' which probably sounds relatively reasonable to the rest of the world, given its already been destroyed once) and a group of hugely irritating, pompous, self-advertising 'members of the community' denounced each question's inherent ludicrousness in an inane exchange of chatter.
Perhaps what became most evident from this film, rather than a murky conspiracy surrounding New Orleans' consignation to a Dante-esque inferno by shadowy authorities in smoke-filled rooms, was concise proof of the particularly American 'need to blame'. Seen in the country's incessant legal economy of madcap suing and ever-ongoing lawsuits, once an occurrence of negativity has come to pass, the unwritten law has established itself as such now that there must be a human responsible behind it. In this case, Shearer paints the US Army Corps Engineers and other figures of authority as culpable, emphatically attempting to state that it was not the Atlantic, not the hurricane that was behind New Orleans' devastation. So what happens now, if they build those defences even bigger and a storm even bigger arrives? Who do they blame then? Far more fascinating were the disappointingly sparse concentrations within the film of working with the Dutch and their expertise on canals to create an ecologically sound new structure for the system of the city, that would absorb floods and their effects rather than striving for further battalions to combat them. In his next film, Shearer might do well to look to the future and its promises, rather than doggedly searching for a villain in the past.
This mess can't be blamed on one party or administration-- the Corps has been failing upwards-- getting more power and money as it keeps failing-- for decades. And the way things have been rebuilt, New Orleans will be unnecessarily vulnerable to the next big storm.
However, you might care about whether it's a good movie. Good enough for the purpose-- there's enough interesting people and visual variety and clear stories to make it a successful documentary. And it does a good job of answering the usual questions, like whether New Orleans was built in a place where there just shouldn't be a city-- all delta port cities are partially below sea level, and it's crucial for the US to have a port at the mouth of the Mississippi.
Anyway, it was only shown in theaters for one night, but I expect there will be a DVD and I hope there will be some long articles and/or a book.
They all realize that Katrina was an engineering failure, and all want remedial measures that don't repeat previous failures. The US Army Corps of Engineers tries to thwart them with varying degrees of success; only the UC Berkeley professor comes out relatively unscathed -- but he has suffered damage to his voice as a result of the strain on working in New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
It points out that the US Army Corps of Engineers in its civil works is 100% funded by Congressional earmarks and that there is a vicious circle of contractors who depend on the Corps for work, who contribute to Congressional campaigns, help to elect people to Congress, who fund the contracts, which support the contractors, who contribute to campaigns dot dot dot.
The film's solution: "bring in the Dutch." The Dutch live on top of their projects and have a strong incentive to make them work. Alas, Dutch people pay their taxes, and the taxes stay in Holland. In the US, a lot of Louisiana's domestic product is oil and gas, from which royalties go to Washington, and after that, who knows what becomes of it?
This is a very fine film, 4 stars out of 4, I hope it is shown to a wider audience. There were about 25 people in the theater when I saw it, first of two shows on one night only.