In an era when Jon Stewart is an integral part of the news scene, it shouldn't be a surprise that a satirist like Harry Shearer is the person who turns out a seminal documentary about an underreported aspect of the circumstances surrounding Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods. Judging from the images of the flooded city in the trailer for The Big Uneasy, one might assume it was another film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It's not. What Shearer has produced is a documentary about engineering.
Opening with shots of street signs Abundance, Arts, Humanity, Piety Shearer segues into near-stock-footage of Carnival. We all know what Mardi Gras is like, he says over shots of Bourbon Street boobs, beads, and beer, before dissolving to the real Mardi Gras: the meeting of the courts, the Society of St. Ann, Indians, families on St. Charles Avenue.
It's a neat metaphor for the central misunderstanding of Katrina itself Katrina, in the American mind, being a hurricane that destroyed New Orleans, rather than a Cat 1 storm that overwhelmed shoddy defenses erected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shearer then goes on to show how Katrina left New Orleans largely unscathed, but through a series of animations (and a minimum of upsetting footage), he offers a timeline and explanation of the levee breaches, failures and collapses.
Using documents and some previously unseen footage, as well as new interviews with people like the now-controversial Dr. Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and Maria Garzino, an unwelcome whistleblower at the Army Corps of Engineers, Shearer pieces together a damning report on the Corps, its disastrous civil engineering and the sad outcome for the New Orleans metro area. (A Corps spokesperson, Karen Durham-Aguilera appears in the documentary on the condition Shearer only discuss what the Corps is doing now and not bring up the past. A disaster had occurred, she intones blandly while recounting the catastrophe.)
This is neither light nor funny stuff, and Shearer doesn't Michael Moore-it-up with theatrics and gimmicks, nor does he neglect the other factors that led to the federal flood. He introduces the country to the MR-GO, a 75-mile ditch and the one cut that led to a thousand deaths. He points out Hurricane Betsy flooded 20 percent of the city, while Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city 40 years later despite improved bulwarks, and explains why (answer: the disappearance of the wetlands).
The few lighter moments are provided by John Goodman in segments called Ask a New Orleanian, where he poses questions like Why don't they just pick up New Orleans and move it somewhere else? and Why are the New Orleanians sitting on their asses waiting for the government to bail them out? Those questions are answered by a roundtable of locals that includes musician Philip Manuel, Gentilly activist and counselor Vera Triplett and Gambit's own Clancy DuBos, who admits It pisses me off.
By the end of The Big Uneasy, Shearer has answered a lot of questions about the levee failures, and raised others. Defective pumps: do you remove them and leave the city with no protection while new ones are rebuilt, or do you work with what you have? Can Americans understand (or will they care) about the difference between Option 1 and Option 2 levees? And what of the cities protected by the more than 100 other levees in this country maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers? How safe are other places, and how will we know?
Shearer presents all this straightforwardly, but as a near-full-time resident of New Orleans, it's clear where his sympathies lie, and his hurt and outrage are palpable despite his documentarian, dispassionate tone. Late in the movie, St. Bernard Parish president Craig Taffaro says, We are members of this nation, and in Shearer's lens, it's not a statement of pride, but of rebuke.