Film Review: The Big Uneasy

A comedian's well-meaning but muddled documentary about the Army Corps of Engineers' pre-Katrina failings in New Orleans is a narrative mess of 20/20 hindsight.

Harry Shearer is a terrific comedic writer-director-performer and a knowledgeable and intelligent commentator on politics and society—none of which, unfortunately, makes this heartfelt blob of a documentary about the Army Corps of Engineers' contributions to the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina feel like anything more than a rueful rant.

Self-distributed as a road show from theatre to theatre, starting in Dallas, Texas, on March 11, The Big Uneasy—the title of which plays on one of New Orleans' nicknames—tells us little that hasn't been thoroughly documented elsewhere: that many of the levees built by the Corps were poorly constructed and did not always hold against the Category 5 Katrina, the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever measured and the fourth-strongest up to that time, though the documentary doesn't tell you any of that. As well, we're reminded that some flood pumps used substandard parts made by cost-conscious contractors; that the Corps became defensive when Team Louisiana, a group of Louisiana State University professors and others, did its own post-hurricane investigation; and that members of the Team were retaliated against by LSU and ostracized by their peers, and Corps whistleblowers marginalized.

From The Times-Picayune to The New York Times, from PBS to public records, this is all old news. What Shearer's independent documentary tries to push is that the flooding of New Orleans was all the fault of the Corps and its government and corporate enablers—indeed, he takes offense at the term "natural disaster," as if the Corps and not one of the largest hurricanes in recorded history were also responsible for the damage to Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere. Like other documentaries not made by journalists, promoting everything from the validity of creationism (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed) to how Bill and Hillary Clinton supposedly had Vincent Foster assassinated (The Clinton Chronicles), the lack of simple journalistic technique and basic story structure make this a narrative nightmare. Shearer does have a valid point to reiterate, but he doesn't present it in any coherent way.

At the start, unidentified talking heads and an animated map of the city rush through a plethora of hurricane-timeline details without providing any grounding so that we understand the big picture. Then, much later, Shearer does what first-year journalism students are told not to do: "bury the lead"—that being, in this case, Judge Stanwood Duval, Jr., of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, quoting from his 2009 decision in a since-appealed case that he tried: "The Corps' lassitude in failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions. The Corps' negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood-protection measures and billions of dollars in Congressional outlays to help this region recover from such a catastrophe." Why isn't this thesis presented at the beginning? Why does the documentary's structure suggest Shearer has uncovered some shadowy conspiracy unrevealed before now?

The wildly unfocused story—which ping-pongs from New Orleans to the Netherlands, from pre-Katrina shortcomings to post-Katrina engineering, and from sober tone to smarmy "Ask a New Orleanian" faux game-show segments with host John Goodman—brings up question after unanswered question. An NBC News clip reports that a contractor, Pittman Construction, sued the Corps because the Corps’ soil and foundation specs were "not of sufficient strength, rigidity and stability." The Corps won in court and Pittman had to build the flood wall as designed. So what is the documentary saying? That the court was in on this conspiracy, too?

There are other such "Huh?" moments where it's unclear what the documentary is trying to suggest without actually stating. It also shoehorns in a large segment on the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet project, which could make an interesting documentary in and of itself but just feels like a tangential side issue here.

Most of the interviewees are Team Louisiana members and environmentalists, though the documentary does speak to two Corps representatives who seem almost central-casting in their obliviousness. One, Karen Durhan-Aguilera, director of the post-Katrina rebuilding project Task Force Hope, comes off as defensive and spin-doctory, and the other, Corps commander Col. Robert Sinkler, seems like a repentant and reasonable sad sack who nonetheless doesn't respond to specific allegations.

It's good to see the Corps' incompetence and featherbedding called out, however much it's been called out before. But the sheer magnitude of Katrina makes the documentary's indignant, 20/20-hindsight tone unpalatable. "You can't out-engineer Mother Nature," one interviewee notes. And for all the Corps' faults, you can't necessarily win against a force of nature.

Educators interested in showing this, note that there is brief Mardi Gras nudity near the beginning and one utterance of a swear word.