Why the Levees Broke
(The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer, USA, 2010, 98 mins)
Almost six years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, the disaster’s place in American popular consciousness remains second only to that of one dark day in mid-September, 2001. Causing almost 2,000 deaths and more than $90 billion worth of damage, Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in US history.
But, only now, with the media mourning period over, have filmmakers really started to tackle the causes, tales and effects of the drowning of New Orleans. With the Forrest Whittaker-starring sports-movie-with-added-typhoon, Hurricane Season, HBO’s Treme, and Spike Lee’s If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise all gracing our screens, silver and small, in the next few months, it seems the fall of The Big Easy is set for a thorough cinematic interrogation.
The latest film to join the growing Katrina canon comes from the unlikeliest of sources. Best known as the voice of The Simpsons’ megalomaniacal billionaire Mr. Burns and as one of the stars of British cult classic This is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer crosses the laughter line from mockumentary to documentary with The Big Uneasy.
While most recent documentaries have tracked the human stories behind Katrina, Shearer takes the opposite angle. ‘Natural disaster? You don’t know the half of it,’ runs The Big Uneasy’s tagline, setting out the piece’s stall for a look at the engineering and political decisions that, Shearer attests, resulted in the catastrophic loss of life and property in August, 2005.
The core of The Big Uneasy consists of interviews with Robert Bea, a veteran engineering professor at Berkeley and one of the lead investigators in an independent investigation into New Orleans’ levee failures, and Ivor Van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center and a vocal critic of the Big Easy’s vulnerability to flooding.
What follows is a detailed examination of the reasons behind the failure of New Orleans’ storm systems, complete with extracts from official and independent reports, computer simulations, and archive footage. What emerges from all this is, primarily, blame, which lands almost solely at the feet of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), a federal agency responsible for a large proportion of America’s water-based civil engineering, including The Big Easy’s flood prevention systems.
Building floodwalls on sandbanks; installing defective pumps that have a lifespan of three years instead of their intended fifty; relying on forty-year-old data for their rebuilding plans – the Corps ineptness seems near limitless. Not that they strive to defend themselves onscreen – their contributions range from saying nothing with very few words to saying nothing with many. Villainous? You half expect USACE’s commander to appear on screen stroking a fluffy white cat.
As Shearer tracks New Orleans problems back to the Corps creation of MR-GO (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) – an astronomically expensive canal that, obsolete by the time of its completion, succeeded only in destroying the ecosystem of the delta and creating a huge storm funnel into the city – it becomes clear that The Big Uneasy has unearthed a conspiracy almost too large to comprehend.
From the intense pressure from the Bush administration to silence Bea and Van Heerden, to the mistreatment of a Corps whistleblower and allegations that USACE’s self-perpetuating cycle of incompetence – make mistake, fix mistake, repeat – is tolerated by the state due to the jobs it provides, the sheer complexity of the issues surrounding Katrina makes for an absorbing, prescient tale. Factor in that the Corps has been handed the job of repairing New Orleans’ storm systems, using plans that are widely held to be as potentially dangerous as the original system, and The Big Uneasy gains another level of importance. Rather than a mere documentary, the piece is an attempt to prevent a repeat of The Big Easy’s darkest days.
But, Shearer’s factual debut isn’t without its issues. Structurally, The Big Uneasy is a bit of a good-natured mongrel. Starting off as a Michael Moore-esque personality-led documentary, with Shearer walking the New Orleans streets and introducing his main points, it quickly morphs into a highly technical, rather impersonal assault of graphs, figures, report excerpts, and somewhat painful jazz.
Likewise, perhaps seeking to counteract the piece’s data-heavy nature, The Big Uneasy’s midway point sees the introduction of an outlandish recurring sequence entitled ‘Ask a New Orleanian.’ Introduced by Treme’s John Goodman, gleefully parodying the stereotypical, wild-eyed American game-show host, these segments see Shearer pose asinine questions such as ‘Are parts of the city still under water?’ to a panel of locals.
While obviously intended to be light-hearted, the segments lack the humour to lighten the tone of The Big Uneasy. What they do highlight is the thorny issue of class. If Spike Lee’s documentary can be criticised for focussing primarily on the black, lower class experience of Katrina and its aftermath, The Big Uneasy, when it strays from its technical roots, does largely the opposite, with Shearer polling solely upper-class New Orleanians whose job titles range from ‘publisher’ to ‘museum curator.’ While not a major issue, the fact that Shearer displays such an objective hand elsewhere in the documentary does make this oversight a tad disappointing.
There’s also the nagging sense that Shearer is overcompensating for his background in comedy with, at times, an overabundance of technical data and documentary evidence. Rather than risk The Big Uneasy being seen as a funny man’s fluff-piece, the director obviously wants to prove that he’s done his research. Which he has. Quite literally, in fact. Largely forgoing the vast teams of researchers that usually assist with factual productions on the scale of The Big Uneasy, Shearer conducted ‘the majority’ of his research alone.
Sadly, the manner in which he presents his vast reams of data makes the piece resemble a high-budget Powerpoint presentation at times. Too often, The Big Uneasy – particularly in the jargon-heavy first third – resorts to throwing bare swathes of text at its audience. Despite the fact that the likes of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Coolidge lend their voices to Shearer’s documentary, asking an audience to endure the recital of entire pages of data, no matter whose dulcet tones are behind it, should be reserved solely for the class and board room.
One of the thorniest issues of documentary filmmaking – the manipulation of the subject in the editing suite – also rears its sutured head in The Big Uneasy. Although impressively hidden for the most part, clipped sentences and skipped frames signal the stitching together of fragments of the interviewees’ speech. While these edits will most likely have been made for the sake of coherence rather than outright manipulation, their prevalence and half-hidden nature still means that The Big Uneasy skirts the edges of journalistic propriety.
Despite this, The Big Uneasy emerges as an important work within the fledgling Katrina canon. Stylistic faults aside, Shearer has crafted a detailed examination of the events that led up to the devastation wrought by the hurricane, as well as highlighted the recurrent, dangerous incompetence of a major agency of the US state. The Big Uneasy may not be pretty, but it is an intelligent, complex treatise on the causes of one of the darkest hours in recent US history, as well as a warning of the need for change… courtesy of a guy from The Simpsons. As a certain yellow-skinned tycoon would put it: ‘excellent.’