Title: The Big Uneasy
Director: Harry Shearer
Special appearance by John Goodman, with the voice talents of Brad Pitt, Jennifer Coolidge, Wendell Pierce and Will Lyman
If, as the saying goes, humor can be a great revealer of and conduit into hard, unspoken truths, then surely a parallel axiom could also be valid — that a humorist might be able to provide an important and clarifying look at heretofore muddied and jumbled realities. Such a hypothesis is born out in the form of Harry Shearer’s feature documentary debut, “The Big Uneasy”. A look at the true root causes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, the movie, while a bit pedantic, nonetheless stands as an important correlative primary historical document, alongside Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” and “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”.
The film centers around Maria Garzino, Robert Bea and Ivor Van Heerden — a federal whistleblower and the leaders of two academic/scientific investigation teams who descended upon New Orleans immediately in the aftermath of the huge storm, respectively. Using their first-person reminiscences and insight as a spine, “The Big Uneasy” makes a compelling case for the criminal incompetence of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the designers and builders of the southern Louisiana levee system as mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1965.
While the immediate news reportage of the disaster cited simple overtopping as the chief reason for the flooding, even some of the most cursory scientific inquiries at the time quickly established that 80 percent of New Orleans found itself under water due to more than two dozen breaches from sheet pilings of insufficient depth — or “a second-year engineering lesson,” according to Van Heerden. This allowed water to rush through and over porous sediment, toppling weakened walls in a matter of hours, or sometimes even minutes. Far from being a once-in-500-years-type storm, Katrina was a bad storm made devastatingly worse by a range of human, preventable errors.
Locating a trail of damning internal USACE memoranda, “The Big Uneasy” also tracks back in time to the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet project (or “Mr. Go”), completed in 1968. Stripping the city of hundreds of acres of protective wetland and cypress trees, the generational failure of this supposed economic-boon project (tabbed as a major, pending problem as far back as 1987) created a swollen waterway and funnel effect that, in late August 2005, would have disastrous consequences for the northern part of the city, and the Lower 9th Ward.
While his movie is very much powered by academic insight and heft, Shearer deploys a few gambits to try to loosen things up. They generally work, if sometimes a bit fitfully. Somewhat jarring interstitials with a garrulous John Goodman help do away with a couple misconceptions about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina (that it’s still underwater, or could be easily “relocated” further inland), and Brad Pitt, Jennifer Coolidge, Will Lyman and Wendell Pierce also lend their voices to the documentary, taking turns narrating certain portions. Shearer — whose voice is more recognizable to most folks than his face, thanks to his longtime work on both “The Simpsons” and NPR — also pops up, narrating connective passages, and sitting in on an open-air market chat with a small cross-section of residents.
While the emergent portrait is heartrending enough to easily summon ire — the USACE seems to be a place where “Failing upwards!” could be emblazoned on the departmental crest — Shearer doesn’t give into empty, angry cheerleading. With its correlative focus on the residents of this proud city (he’s a longtime “adopted son” and part-time denizen) and those who refused to be cowed by bureaucratic smokescreens, he also spotlights another amazing and unexpected truth: New Orleans may have been uniquely situated, geographically, to befall a tragedy like this, but it was and is also uniquely situated to react, from the standpoint of its human resources.
Note: While “The Big Uneasy” is booked for over 40 markets theatrically, it opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and Mr. Shearer will be at the Laemmle Sunset 5 for post-screening Q&As on May 20 and 21. For more information, click here: http://www.laemmle.com/viewtheatre.php?thid=2
Written by: Brent Simon