How do we know Harry Shearer? Let us count the ways: a regular voice in the mix of TV’s The Simpsons, as ace ensemble member of Christopher Guest films, and, on his unique public radio program, Le Show, news junkie, quipster, one-man sketch-maker, and socio-political satirist. He has carved out his own multifaceted place in American culture and media, with a list of talents to which we can now add “documentary filmmaker.”
With The Big Uneasy, Shearer, a part-time resident and ardent fan of all things New Orleans, has channeled his rage at the root causes—governmental misdeeds and cover-up—that led to Hurricane Katrina’s unprecedented destruction. As someone asserts in the film, “This was not a natural disaster. This was a disaster caused by people.” In the blame crosshairs here, put forth boldly in this documentary as well as in many judicial, journalistic, and conventional wisdom corners, is the monolithic, and more-or-less untouchable, Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps’ dysfunctional flood-prevention systems, especially the MRGO (Mississippi River—Gulf Outlet) project and failure to heed warnings from informed places allegedly led to the catastrophic loss of life and property.
To get to the murky heart of the matter, Shearer relies on a few key interviewees, whose truth-seeking and truth-exposing efforts cost them jobs and caused them ostracism—the wages of whistle-blowing. Among them are since-defrocked LSU professor Ivor van Heerden, Corps employee Maria Garzino, and UC Berkeley professor Robert Bea, part of a Cal team that extensively studied the post-Katrina conditions. Shearer also includes fascinating interviews with UCSB professor Dr. William Freudenburg (who died last year) and renowned blues/Cajun musician Tab Benoit, who lends a poetic appreciation of the region.
Even in documentary filmmaker shoes, it may have been tempting for the innately comic Shearer to juice up the film with some of his smirking, well-informed satirist side. But Shearer seems intent on playing this one straight, showing up as a casual narrator and storytelling traffic guide. He leaves the brief blips of comic relief to New Orleanian John Goodman, as carnival barker. Shearer’s first documentary may lack journalistic balance, and it may be an unfinished story, but The Big Uneasy manages to foster debate while delivering informational shock and awe about the civil engineering wars brewing beneath the surface of life as we think we know it.