The Unforeseen sounds like it could be a horror movie, and, in a sense, the 2007 documentary boasts a number of spine-chilling moments. But its shudders come from the environmental nightmare created by urban development and suburban sprawl. Director Laura Dunn focuses on the microcosm of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas, and how the area's pristine beauty was severely compromised by residential and commercial developers.
At the center of the tale is Gary Bradley, a tight-lipped Texas farm boy who came to prominence in the 1980s as a key mover-and-shaker in Austin's development. In his quest to launch a $127 million housing addition, Bradley partnered with a strip mining company, Freeport McMoRan, that boasted a dubious environmental track record. That business union raised the hackles of local activists and nature lovers who feared what the explosion of development would mean for Barton Springs.
Such concerns, it turned out, were founded. Dunn and ace cinematographer Lee Daniel plainly demonstrate what the development boon meant for Barton Springs, employing vivid underwater scenes that compare the clear waters of 1996 with the muck that envelopes it today. The images speak volumes.
Dunn is kind to Bradley, who has taken a professional and personal battering in his native Texas, but elsewhere the documentary filmmaker doesn't hide her eco-friendly sympathies. She uses news footage of an all-night 1990 Austin city council meeting in which scads of residents turned out to support a proposal limiting development. For the sequence, Dunn uses rousing background music more fitting for a Rocky flick.
While the ordinance in question passed, Bradley and Freeport eventually had the last laugh. Developers turned to a high-powered lobbyist named Dick Brown and took their battle to the Texas State Capitol.
What followed was political gamesmanship that undoubtedly will provide more fodder for bashers of George W. Bush, who won the Texas governor's race at the height of the environmental tug-of-war. "The legislature burned Austin to the ground," gloats Brown, who agreed to be interviewed for The Unforeseen on the precondition that his face not appear onscreen. It turned out to be a fortuitous move for Dunn, who trains her camera on the man's hands as he meticulously paints models of military aircraft (note to self: When being skewered in an environmental-conscious documentary, use the interview as an opportunity to catch up on yard work).
Dunn's approach to that interview is among many inspired moments here. Even the film title is appropriately poetic, a reference to a line in Wendell Berry's poem, "Santa Clara Valley," which the writer recites here in a sonorous voiceover. The use of that poem helps sets an elegiac tone that is reinforced by remarkable visuals of scenic Austin. A flurry of interviews -- including Willie Nelson, journalist William Greider, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Robert Redford (who co-produced The Unforeseen with Terrence Malick) -- are deftly juggled, but the bits that stick with you afterward are more lyrical than conventionally edifying. One of Dunn's more ingenious creative flourishes is a doctor who discusses how the human body accommodates growth -- and how unnatural growth can result in medical disaster.
But the documentary's indisputable artistry is not matched by its content. Dunn is nothing if not ambitious, and The Unforeseen's lean 88-minute running time doesn't allow enough elbow room for her overarching themes about the limitations of growth. That might prevent the film from being as revelatory as one might hope, but hindered ambitions don't diminish the movie's emotional power.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 screens, The Unforeseen is a visual stunner (not something you can always say about a documentary). Crisp details, strong lines and well-saturated colors combine for a spectacular picture quality.
Viewers can choose between Dolby 5.1 Surround and a Stereo 2.0 mix. The former is naturally preferable, although both tracks are consistent and solid. The 5.1 workout primarily comes in showcasing the music score.
Aside from a trailer, the sole extra is a commentary with Dunn, cinematographer Lee Daniel, production designer Jeff Sewell and sound designer Tom Hammond. There is terrific rapport among the participants and lots of information -- well worth checking out for admirers of the film.
Although The Unforeseen is surprisingly compassionate toward one of its so-called villains, it is still staunchly on the side of environmental activists who protested the development heyday of Austin, Texas, during the 1980s and '90s. But notions of objectivity seem to be less and less de rigueur in documentary filmmaking these days, and there is no denying that director Laura Dunn achieves moments of beauty and sublime power in her feature-length debut.