Reporting Jonathon Sharp
The Big Uneasy is a documentary that focuses on why Hurricane Katrina was so devastating to the city of New Orleans and it lays the full force of the blame on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The movie is written, directed and produced by Harry Shearer, whom you may recognize as the voice of numerous Simpsons characters, like Ned Flanders. However, the tone of the film, as you may have guessed, has no place for any hi-diddly-ho-neighborino goofiness.
Shearer’s film is poised as a revelation, as something that will enlighten you to sides of the Katrina story you don’t know. It will give you reason to worry about a similar disaster happening in the future to New Orleans and cities like it.
The movie will also make you think that the Army Corps of Engineers is an almost totally inept organization and has been for some time.
In the spirit of transparency, I think I should say that I was in high school when Katrina befell New Orleans in 2005. Being of Midwestern stock, I have no family ties to the south, no close friends from that region and all I remember from the TV news coverage of that event is the vague feeling of disbelief that always comes over me when I see images of any catastrophe.
That vague feeling, however, is often replaced with something specific and poignant if I can relate a devastating event with a face or a story. In the case of Katrina, the person I think of is a woman named Patty.
She was a co-worker of mine when I worked at a Caribou Coffee in Minnetonka. She was from the south. She came to Minnesota because her son lived here and Katrina had taken nearly all she had from her. She was sweet, good humored, funny, hard working, well-liked and obviously wounded. She missed her home.
I didn’t work with her much or ever talk to her about her past. But I did see a photograph of something she made with the things she had that did survive the hurricane. In the photo, the objects were arranged into what looked like a shrine, one built seemingly in some feeling akin to desperation. The shrine was comprised of mundane household objects, a few photos and a string of lights. And all around the shrine were tiny brightly colored plastic butterflies. The appearance of these butterflies seemed so out of place to me, so childish and tender and personal and bizarre that, until this day, whenever I hear of Katrina, I think of those butterflies.
Now back to the movie. As you can see, I’m no Katrina scholar, but I am interested in the stories of those affected by that disaster. And in this realm, ‘The Big Uneasy’ falls flat.
The movies’ mode of attack is to first explain to you how the city flooded, which is a good way to start. But then it launches at you a barrage of characters (scientists, engineers and politicians) who talk at you for a very long time. And since they are all telling to the same story, the telling tends to drag. The film then descends into a soup of quotes for what feels like a half an hour.
Thus the film commits a journalistic sin. It tells you what happened, it doesn’t show you. To put it better: The Big Uneasy doesn’t show enough.
The real pity about it is that within the documentary are some great stories. There is one of a dedicated scientist who works ceaselessly to provide answers surrounding the events of Katrina, and he loses nearly everything in his professional life for being a pain to the authorities.
There is another great story about an engineer with the Army Corps who relentlessly reports about the faulty equipment the corps has in place to protect the city, and she is ignored by the corps and saddled with busy work.
The Big Uneasy contains wonderful stories, but it doesn’t tell them well. They appear as afterthoughts when they should have been leads. Strong leads.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t just point fingers. It gives answers. Its solution to the to New Orleans’ water problem is coastal wetlands, which are being eaten by the sea because of an Army-corps made problem. In this way, the film says Katrina was actually an unnatural catastrophe.
These wetlands soak up the extra water brought in by storm systems naturally. If the city were built around them and not in spite of them, it would fare much better in the face of hurricanes as mighty as Katrina.
To warp this up: The Big Uneasy has a lot to say and what it has to say is interesting, even important. What the film lacks, however, are those plastic butterflies – the things that make stories human, that present facts artfully and that make history dazzlingly tragic.
The Big Uneasy plays at the Trylon Microcinema June 21 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Trylon Microcinema is located at:
3258 Minnehaha Avenue South