Politics At The Movies: The Big Uneasy

The Big Uneasy

Directed by Harry Shearer

By Malcolm Maclachlan

Playing March 18-24 at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St.), with an appearance by Shearer on opening night.

Harry Shearer is a very funny man, and New Orleans is one of the most fun cities in the entire world. But you wouldn’t necessarily think either is true from watching this documentary. At the risk of making a bad pun, it’s a dry film about a flood.

Shearer, of course, is best known for a trio of characters he plays on “The Simpsons,” Smithers, Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders (a guy who I’ve always taken as a kind of liberal fantasy of what they wished evangelical Christians were really like). And, of course, he was the bass player in “This is Spinal Tap.” He’s actually an accomplished musician (he was getting his bass worked on during our interview on page A14). And he even has a weekly radio show, “Le Show,” where he riffs, mostly solo, on the events of the day, where he rips into both conservatives and his fellow progressives.

“Harry is a very smart man,” our publisher Arnold York told me last week – they know each other. That intelligence is on full display here. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries at this job, and this one is the most seeped in data and engineering of any film I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s all in the service of a very specific point – pointing to the role of the Army Corps of Engineer’s role in what Shearer argues is a manmade disaster. The snafus and despicable behavior that came out of Katrina were so plentiful that they served to obscure the true culprit. Between George W. Bush, FEMA, New Orleans police officers who abandoned their post and took part in looting, there was so much misconduct and incompetence by those connected with government that half a decade later, they’re the punch lines and the Army Corps got off.

It was the Corps that built and certified most of the levees in New Orleans – not to mention many around the greater Sacramento area. That’s why Shearer breaks down their work point-by-point. One of the most compelling parts comes early on when he uses computer graphics to take the viewer through an hour-by-hour replay of the more than dozens of levee breaking that ended up flooding most of the city. We’ve all heard the lines about how New Orleans suffered a man-made disaster after being missed by a hurricane, but he really shows what it looked like.

The breaks occurred one after another, in many different places, and for a variety of engineering reasons. In some places, levee walls were sitting on top of sand – about the worst levee material you can use short of, say, ice cream. Many occurred in poor neighborhoods while leaving richer, higher neighborhoods largely unscathed. Almost no problems occurred on the Mississippi River – watching boats go by at a level higher than the street you’re standing on is normal experience while in the French Quarter – but on other bodies of water associated with New Orleans’ oil and shipping industries.

And while there weren’t many cameras trained on the events at they were happening, the recent earthquake and tsunamis in Japan give a pretty good idea of what many residents were faced with when levees broke suddenly and catastrophically, not being overtopped but from being obliterated from below. In some cases, walls of water knocked out five rows of houses, leaving debris strewn at a telltale angle.

Every good detective story needs heroes. Here they’re the three dozen or so members of Team Louisiana, a group of engineers and academics from several universities and even some foreign counties – mainly Holland – who fought with the Corps to get access to document the reasons for levee failures. They’re a decided unglamorous group, led by a grandfatherly guy with a speech impediment. But their little-noticed 2007 report was a damning exposé on the corners cut by the Corps in New Orleans (and, presumably, elsewhere).

Some of the most damning testimony comes from an Army Corps whistleblower, Maria Garzino, an engineer who oversaw the post-disaster testing of the huge pumps that are supposed to keep the city dry. Or she was supposed to oversee it. Every step of the way, she explains, rules were changed, tests made easier, parts replaced until the pumps passed tests that couldn’t really be called tests at all. Without similar pumps operating 24/7, the New York subway system would fill with water in about 24 hours.

Which brings us to another point – is New Orleans even worth saving anymore? After all, it’s a city below sea level. But as Shearer points out, there are port cities all over the world that are largely below sea level. As opposed to Manhattan, which you can’t actually raise except by taking all the big buildings off of it, if the Mississippi River were allowed to flow like it did in the past, Louisiana would be growing both outward and upward.  

But that would involve changing the industrial and agricultural system of the nation. On the other hand, if the levees had been better, Katrina wouldn’t be the political touchstone it is today. Shearer doesn’t point the normal partisan fingers, and mostly goes easy on Bush. The Corps were operating on his watch, but many of the problems with their work predates not just Bush’s election but his childhood.

If you have the patience for a film that in some ways is more like reading a book than watching a movie – cool graphics aside – you will learn a great deal here. As someone who just bought a house in flood-prone and Corps-protected Sacramento, it sure got my attention.

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