UC Berkeley Professor Robert Bea in Harry Shearer's The Big Uneasy

Mr. Go sounds like the name of a comic book superhero, but such is not the case. As we learn from Harry Shearer’s new documentary, The Big Uneasy (opening this Friday, July 8th at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood), Mr. Go is actually a bit of a villain — an anthropomorphized representation of the slow-motion, decades-long disaster that culminated in the inundation of New Orleans on August 29th, 2005.

The scale of the catastrophe is still hard to fathom, but The Big Uneasy uses computer-generated mapping imagery (provided by the former director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center, Dr. Ivor van Heerden) to make the truth abundantly clear. When New Orleans’ hurricane defenses failed, huge areas of the city were rapidly inundated, causing approximately 81 billion dollars worth of damage.

The federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went into damage control mode almost immediately: “no one” could have anticipated such a huge storm, which was a once in a lifetime “storm of the century”. Some scientists, however, weren’t satisfied with easy bromides, and two independent investigations — one led by the LSU Hurricane Center, the other by UC Berkeley’s own Robert Bea and Ray Seed — swung into action to determine what actually went wrong.

What they learned reflected extremely poorly on the Army. Not only had the Corps of Engineers downplayed the risks of a major hurricane, they’d constructed levees grossly inadequate to the task and ignored decades-old recommendations to strengthen them. Thanks to what Van Heerden describes as ‘basic second-year engineering mistakes’, almost 2,000 people lost their lives.

Somewhat more controversially, the film also suggests that the levees may have been a bad idea to start with. Louisiana’s coastal wetlands act as a sponge, soaking up the moisture of major storms, but a hundred years of levee construction reversed thousands of years of geologic evolution. Consequently, over one and a half million acres of wetlands were reclaimed by the Gulf of Mexico during the 20th century, severely weakening the region’s natural defenses.

And what about Mr. Go? The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was a pork barrel project intended to shorten the trip from the Gulf to the Port of New Orleans. Constructed by the Corps of Engineers between 1958 and 1968, Mr. Go is a 75-mile long ditch that was obsolete almost as soon as it was completed. Closed to maritime traffic in 2004, it now serves primarily as a funnel through which Gulf of Mexico storm surge speeds its way to the heart of the city, killing seawater-averse delta species along the way.

It was inevitable that someone would lose their job — and perhaps their reputation — once the investigations wrapped up. True to form, Dr. van Heerden was fired by Louisiana State (a school with a long and cozy relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers) and Dr. Bea was dubbed an “enemy of the United States” at a professional conference. (The resultant stress, we’re told, has since damaged his vocal cords.) Meanwhile, the Corps and the feds quickly reverted to “look forward, not back” mode: nothing to see here, folks — move along.

This is Shearer’s first documentary film, and his inexperience occasionally shows. The film features some unnecessary breakaway segments hosted by John Goodman, in which local residents hold forth in best Chamber of Commerce style about the wonders of their hometown, and he relies a little too much on printed text to tell the story. Those are minor gripes, however: The Big Uneasy is a surprisingly effective and thoroughly serious effort from someone who’s made his fortune making us laugh. I suspect Ned Flanders would be very proud indeed.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...