A sort of companion piece to Spike Lee’s exhaustive human mosaic When the Levees Broke, The Big Uneasy synopsizes expert findings from the aftermath of New Orleans’s devastation during Hurricane Katrina. Corralling interviews from civic engineers and water professionals who were instrumental in both the construction and post-disaster investigation of the Crescent City’s flood-control system, director/narrator Harry Shearer gradually arrives at a grim if convoluted thesis: that years of environmental destruction, municipal mismanagement, and corrupt contracting has left New Orleans more vulnerable to the elements than ever before. (After CGI animation illustrates the manner in which Lake Pontchartrain leaked mercilessly throughout the city, the point is made that the damage suffered during more severe hurricanes such as Betsy and Andrew was nowhere near as dramatic.)
Fans of Harry Shearer’s work outside of Christopher Guest’s comedies and The Simpsons will likely recognize, and appreciate, his trademark curiosity throughout this examination. The indignation expressed by Katrina’s victims in other worthwhile documents has aroused sympathy and stupefied disgust, but these emotions also preclude the patience required to understand the baroque inanity that facilitated the flood. Shearer isn’t afraid to offer the most complicated details undiluted, most of them laying the blame on the US Army Corps of Engineers’ development of the area rather than FEMA’s sluggish response. Important levees were not built far enough into the earth, and the soil they penetrated was not optimized to withstand water pressure. Faulty pumps were installed at multiple hydraulic stations throughout the city’s canals. And without the hastily manmade Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, one interviewee claims that Louisiana would have suffered little more than “wet ankles” from the storm.
Shearer is not, however, an aggressive storyteller, and he doesn’t bother dramatizing any of the above material in a way that might arouse a thirst for justice. Part of this passivity might also be due to his talking heads’ fatigue: Engineers who lost their jobs after attempting to sue the government for putting human lives in danger with cut corners and poor designs come across as defeated and exhausted. But since we hear from so few residents of New Orleans, this tone makes The Big Uneasy feel like a terminally, albeit purposefully, detached case study. (Attempts at humor, such as John Goodman’s brief, tongue-in-cheek appearances, are awkward distractions from the content’s blandness.) The last few minutes are inspirationally forward-looking; Shearer discusses how easily a similar catastrophe could occur in Sacramento, and how the use of Dutch blueprints could just as easily avoid it. But ultimately, the film confirms that the real scandal behind Katrina is too deep, too knotty, and too technical to permeate our cultural understanding of the event and incite the rage it deserves.