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The Big Uneasy

Dir: Harry Shearer

Rating: 2.9/5.0

98 Minutes

It has been six years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and three indelible accounts have emerged from the devastated Crescent City. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Trouble the Water used home footage to document the travails of one displaced family while Dave Eggers, at his investigative best in his book Zeitoun, chronicled the struggles of Syrian immigrant Abdulrahman Zeitoun in a post-9/11 America, uncovering the inhuman morass of deception swirling in Katrina’s wake. But it is Spike Lee’s sweeping documentary When the Levees Broke that really gives voice to those who lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones in the storm. While director Harry Shearer sets out with good intentions in his documentary The Big Uneasy, he does not possess the same artistry as Lee and Eggers, nor the harrowing footage that makes up the heft of Trouble the Water.

Shearer’s film specifically focuses on the aftermath of Katrina, using a handful of scientists to pinpoint exactly why the levees failed. Shearer’s thesis is simple: the New Orleans disaster could have been prevented. It wasn’t the storm that broke down the levees but laziness and cost-cutting. Falling squarely in his crosshairs is the Army Corps of Engineers. Unfortunately, listening to scientists conjecture about flooding and failed levees is nowhere near as harrowing or heartrending as hearing it from the citizens of New Orleans who were stuck in the storm.

The Big Uneasy, however, isn’t a film about human drama. Instead, Shearer allows the scientists such as Ivor van Heerden, who ran LSU’s Hurricane Center, and engineering professor Robert Bea, an engineering professor from UC Berkeley, to examine in minute detail just why New Orleans could withstand prior hurricanes, but not Katrina. Most of the blame falls on the Army Corps of Engineers who mismanaged not only the construction of the levees but also installed faulty pumps in the city’s canals to save time and money. Worst of all is the now defunct Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a horribly constructed canal that killed off much of the marshland surrounding New Orleans, an important biome that would have curtailed much of Katrina’s power.

Undercutting the power of Shearer’s material is the slapdash manner in which the film is assembled. Van Heerden lost his job once he spoke out against the Army and Bea has become a pariah to his colleagues as both men attempted to expose a cover-up. Yet, The Big Uneasy is strangely detached from drama, instead playing out more like an impersonal television special than an exposé on fraud and suppression of the truth. For some odd reason, John Goodman appears in a few side scenes to bring comic relief to the film. But it’s unnecessary since The Big Uneasy lacks any sort of pulse in the first place. While the information here is damning, the citizens of New Orleans deserve a defense that is more fired up, angrier and more gripping than this somewhat flaccid documentary.

by David Harris

See Also: Zeitoun- by Dave Eggers

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See Also: Trouble the Water

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