When speaking after the Toronto International Film Festival Midnight Madness screening of The Bay, director Barry Levinson explained that the film originated when he was approached about making a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay, which is 40 percent dead, meaning nothing can grow in it because of the lack of oxygen. The idea intrigued him, so he began doing research only to discover PBS' Frontline had covered the subject so well in "Poisoned Waters" that he didn’t think he could add anything. Yet, the information stayed with him and he found a way to put it to use.
While some people understandably have an adverse reaction to the found-footage format, its use here makes perfect sense with the story Levinson tells. The film opens with Donna (Kether Donohue), a former local TV reporter, being interviewed by someone off screen. She was on scene during the annual Fourth of July celebration in Claridge, Maryland a few years ago when an ecological disaster hit and was one of the lucky ones to survive. Many of the residents died, and the U.S. government covered up what happened. This interview is being conducted because she has been working to collect all the video footage related to the event and posted it on a website in order to get the truth out to the public.
Through almost every video format available, such as the news camera, surveillance footage, videoconferencing, and iPhone movies, and numerous sources, the interviewee (Levinson) and the audience see the events of the day, how it was dealt with by the authorities, and learn how the problem originated. The story jumps around to different plotlines, yet the viewer can easily keep track of the logistics of the scenes thanks to the characters, which are admittedly lacking in depth and generate little connection with the audience, and the video format.
While I enjoyed The Bay, it did have a couple issues. The mayor is an unfortunate caricature. He's the typical businessman who cares more about the town making money than the welfare of its citizens. Not only does it bring to mind Jaws, but the character has been done too many times and has little to no motivation here. Even harder to accept is the character remaining resolute in the face of the circumstances. What I found more distracting was the score composed by Marcelo Zarvos, which makes no sense because why would Donna, who is the one who compiled this footage, have gone to the trouble to add music to the material? Sure, yt helps evoke the mood for Levinson's purposes, but it kept taking me out of the moment. Aside from those elements, the film gets more right than it does wrong.
What makes The Bay so effective is that the science is believable, and Levinson clarified that 80 percent of the science is true. Rarely has education been so entertaining. Though it's not as scary as the marketing might want you to believe, the film is suspenseful and contains a few good moments that will startle you and make you squirm.