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The Big Uneasy

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The Big Uneasy - 5/1/2012 1:53:43 PM   
Emyr Thy King


Posts: 2165
Joined: 13/4/2006
From: London
It's a documentary examing the real causes that exacerbated the events of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, including the failure of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers in dealing with sufficient 'flood proofing'. Not only that, it goes into the systemic failure of the organisation to heed its earlier reports on the levees, project mis-management and how it and possibly other government agents tried to silence vocal critics including one U.S Army whistleblower.

It's written, directed and presented by Harry Shearer. A part-time resident of New Orleans and of course many will recognise him from This is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons. I'm sure some would raise an eyebrow and wonder whether he's tried another mockumentary here. But no-one would be that tasteless nor 'unfunny'.

I have to say, he's done sterling work here in presenting a fairly robust case study into the complexity of the incident. As there's a fair bit of technical detail involved, primarily dealing with engineering issues that led to the flooding being worsened. What's very grave is how such things as the 'MR GO' canal (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) was in essence unsustainable and moreover proved to be a major risk to the neighbouring populated areas. How the foundations of the levees contributed majorly to the flooding (the base for the levees in places was sand) and despite being warned about such a disaster happening, the U.S government and its various organisations failed to act. When the incident happened, FEMA took a lot of the blame when the U.S Army Corps of Engineers quietly got along with re-construction and repair work of the levee system. However, the case presented against it here surely proves incompetence and criminality in equal measure. In particular, the installation of a faulty pump system which after a further external investigation proved to be even more defective than first thought. It even transpires the Corps drew up two plans for flood consolidation and went with the first plan, which conveniently was the cheapest one. Even though they grossly overestimated the costs and time it would take to implement the second plan.

The documentary primarily uses three key figures: A Corps engineer, a civil engineer from the University of Berkeley and a former professor and director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Watch Centre. Together, they present a narrative of events and also their story in terms of their findings and how they tried to act on their findings but were ultimately rebuked and even ostracised in some circles. These are experts who detail a fairly large amount of information about what went wrong. But Shearer cleverly imparts the necessary technical information without burdening the viewer with having to remember engineering nomenclature and an endless number of acronyms. We see simulated models of what happened interspersed with actual footage of the flooding. Including snippets from various published documents that add credence to proceedings. In addition, other figures with loose connections to the event are interviewed and bring more background information about the corps and Hurricane Katrina. Despite all the economic, physical and even human devastation. Shearer doesn't pander to one's emotions or try to present a mawkish appeal for humanity. He goes beyond the official press releases and the explanations given by the authorities and exposes a profound tragedy. Not just simply a tragedy of the scale of destruction, but the sheer ignorance and pig-headedness which surely contributed towards worsening a situation that could've been managed much more effectively.

Whilst Shearer avoids going on a warpath and adopting aggressive tactics such as ones Michael Moore would like to use. He allows the facts and information he presents to tell the story and lets the viewer decide what went wrong. Nonetheless, whilst the documentary doesn't veer into polemic nor try to persecute any one person or organisation. Its analysis of the government's response, in particular the Corps are scathing and will make people sit up and take note. The closing moments of the documentary are chilling and ominous too, considering the sheer amount of cities and towns at risk.

A superb documentary and one that surprised me very much coming from Mr. Shearer. The only criticism I could make is that the small panel of residents involved were unecessary and only really amounted as filler. In addition, John Goodman's "Ask New Orleanians" (sic) segment might be a bit jarring and uncomfortably sits alongside what is an exemplary piece of documentary film-making.




The Big Uneasy

< Message edited by Emyr Thy King -- 5/1/2012 2:13:24 PM >
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