May 22, 2011

The Big Uneasy

Went to see The Big Uneasy last night at Real Art Ways. It's a documentary by Harry Shearer, about the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans and the impact of levee / flood control design by the Army Corps of Engineers on that. It's a story of whistle-blowers, Don Quixote-like professors, and "are they really dumb enough to let themselves be on camera spouting this stuff?" representatives of the Army Corps.

Harry Shearer is mining the same sort of ground that Michael Moore has carved out with his documentaries. But Shearer is calmly earnest, and brings none of the bombast, hyperbole, or cinematic stunts to bear that Moore's later works have come to rely on. I'm recalling that scene in Bowling for Columbine where Moore confronts an aging Charleston Heston, kind of left me feeling a bit dirty. There is none of that here. Perhaps Moore's first big work, Roger & Me, brought the same level of personal involvement that Shearer brings as he documents the issues with his hometown.

I really liked the graphic overview (via map) of how the levee failures flooded New Orleans; was the first time I understood both the geography of the city as well as the pernicious nature of the failures (my mainstream media advised understanding was that there was one or two levee failures. And I've never really understood how the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet canal, or MR-GO, contributed to both the flooding of the city or to the loss of wetlands / habitat.

The "Ask a New Orleanian" segments, hosted by John Goodman, were good, although I would have liked to have seen a bit more depth / diversity (it seems to have been filmed at a single sit-down with five fairly well-off residents, would have liked a few roving crew interview bits)

Mostly, I was left shaking my head, and a little pissed. I've had my own brushes with the Army Corps (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) and I'd have to agree with one of the comments in the film that the Army Corps have stopped engineering in favor of project management. There does not seem to be a big picture design concept at work here.

The interview segments with the three protaganists: Ivor van Heerden, director of a hurricane research center at LSU, Robert Bea, a civil engineer at U. Cal Berkeley, and Maria Garzino, an engineer from the Army Corps of Engineers - were the most powerful. All three have paid a heavy toll for simply wanting to get at the truth and butting heads with the federal juggernaut that seems equal parts stupid, bull-headed, and evil.

The Army Corps representatives were conversely pretty frustrating - sprouting the company line, looking at the narrow scope of their particular project or issue, and not really wanting, able, or permitted to step back to see the larger picture.

Great documentary - go see it!

P.S. - Also, the film website's Resources page has some incredible reports and documents supporting the film. Engineering Pron.

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