Wednesday, May 18, 2011

About Those Levees: The Big Uneasy

Journalist Michael Grunwald describes the Army Corps of Engineers as a government agency funded almost entirely through pork. That truly speaks volumes. Giving FEMA a break, the Corps emerges as the unambiguous villain of Katrina in The Big Uneasy (trailer here), Harry Shearer’s documentary investigation of the devastating levee breaches precipitated by the hurricane, which opens this Friday in New York.

Despite the bumper crop of Katrina docs, most viewers will be stunned by the meticulous indictment assembled by Shearer, the Simpsons voice-over artist and part-time Crescent City resident. To start with, most of the worst flooding was caused by under-seepage rather than over-topping of the levees. This is obviously implies some rather profound design flaws in the levee system.

Calling on expert testimony from several academics who investigated the levee breaches on behalf of the State of Louisiana and a Corps of Engineers whistleblower, Shearer establishes a pattern of pervasive negligence at the agency. Essentially, the New Orleans levees were built to unrealistically low specifications, on dangerously porous ground, incorporating a network of substandard pumps. To make matters unnecessarily worse, they created a flooding “funnel effect,” with “MR. GO,” an acronym for a little used but highly expensive commercial waterway. That’s hundreds of millions of your tax dollars at work.

Indeed, in many ways Uneasy is a chronicle of wasteful, counterproductive government spending run amok. Frankly, term “incompetence” is too generous for the systemic failures of the Corps. Yet, the agency has been largely spared the public recriminations leveled at FEMA. As Shearer points out, congressional reps love to put big conspicuous waterworks projects in their districts, which, of course, are duly constructed by the Corps.

As narrator, writer, executive producer, and director, Shearer maintains the right tone throughout, keeping the proceedings largely dispassionate and authoritative. He is definitely looking to assign responsibility, but he does not engage in the sort of finger-pointing that so many previous Katrina docs indulged in. Legitimately non-partisan, Shearer even presents a Republican politician in a favorable light, including footage of Sen. David Vitter effectively cutting through the dissembling of a senior Corps officer testifying before the Senate.

To his further credit, Shearer is not interested in creating more victimization narratives. Though he largely focuses on muckraking the Corps, he occasionally interjects a brief “Ask a New Orleanian” vignette. Hosted by actor John Goodman, these segments contradict most of the helpless NOLA victim stereotypes, offering a portrait of a revitalized city, with a unique and ever evolving culture. Wisely, Uneasy also features a legit NOLA style soundtrack by funky jazz pianist David Torkanowsky to remind so many of us how we came to love the city in the first place.

Uneasy’s release is timely for a number of reasons. Shearer repeatedly emphasizes the issue of inadequately constructed levees effects many communities beyond the Crescent City. New Orleans was simply the most vulnerable. It also hits theaters the day after the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem benefit concert. Created to help jazz musicians in need, the Foundation’s caseload exploded when Katrina hit. Working tirelessly, Wendy and her staff provided housing and medical assistance, replaced lost instruments, and even found paying gigs for hundreds of displaced musicians. To support their efforts and buy tickets for a swinging star-studded show go here. Surprisingly informative and persuasive, Uneasy is also recommended when it opens this Friday (5/20) in New York at the Cinema Village.