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Le Screw-Up: Harry Shearer Charts the Flooding of New Orleans in The Big Uneasy

Tonight—and only tonight, in many theaters—you can and you should see The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer’s surprisingly even-tempered response to hearing over and over that the flooding of New Orleans was “a natural disaster.” The thesis, glibly stated, is that the flooding of New Orleans was no-ho way-hay a natural disaster. The word “Katrina” barely comes up. Nor is there mention—in case you presumed this was yet another documentary about the Bush administration’s criminal incompetence—of FEMA, FEMA trailers, Heckuva-Job Brownie, or Barbara Bush Live at the Astrodome, all of whom have elicited acid commentaries on Shearer’s weekly radio hour, Le Show. The focus here is non-ideological and relatively narrow. Apart from a few interludes in which Shearer boisterously dispels cheap myths about the city in which he lives part-time, The Big Uneasy is a judicious analysis of inadequate levees, faulty pumps, eradicated wetlands, egregious shipping routes, catastrophic water funnels, and the agency that has gone to enormous lengths to conceal the tragic magnitude of its fuck-up: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I should state my own biases up front: I think Shearer is an unsung hero of American culture, a clown-misanthrope who elevates snark to the level of true satire. And I'm not even taking about This is Spinal Tap. On Le Show, he mostly reads the news, using radio in an old-fashioned way, like Fiorello LaGuardia sharing comic strips with kids: “Hey, kids—didja hear this one?” Reading from trade papers (the source of much insider corporate thinking), papers “outside the bubble” (most of them abroad), and reports of inspectors general, he unearths the buried leads and registers mock surprise. “Who knew?” He knew, of course, and reminds us that he knew: Nothing surprises him except that everyone else acts surprised. “But it’s Pakistan—our friends, ladies and gentleman!” “But it’s nuclear power—it’s too clean, cheap, safe-to-meter-cheap-to-meter, safe… How could this happen?” The tiniest inflection can carry an ocean of bitterness.

When I heard about The Big Uneasy (on Le Show, of course—you won’t see or hear many ads for it), I assumed that Shearer would be trying on Michael Moore’s big-boy trousers. Maybe this would be Le Show: The Motion Picture. But the documentary—and Shearer’s onscreen persona, addressing the camera in a cute little hat—is largely irony-free. He clearly thinks there’s too much at stake to be a smart-ass.

The heroes of The Big Uneasy are the ones who stood up and did their civic duty and risked—and in some cases, did—lose all. Dr. Ivor van Heerden, the South African-born former director of the (former) Louisiana State University Hurricane Center warned for years that the levees were not designed to withstand the likely storm surge. Even more objective was Dr. Robert Bea of Berkeley, part of an independent team that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to keep away from the more embarrassing levee breaches. Van Heerden was fired for testifying against the Corps (which subsequently paid LSU $12 million for help with “prioritizing”), while Bea got off relatively easy being denounced at a conference as an “enemy of the United States.” The film’s other protagonist, an Army Corps engineer named Maria Garzino, tried to warn her bosses that pumps being constructed didn’t even pass the contractor’s own tests (the company kept lowering the bar after each failure) before she became of the Office of Special Counsel’s Whistleblower of the Year. Shearer doesn’t mention the name of the Corps engineers who wrote a report waaaaaaayyyy back in 1988 (as Shearer would put it on Le Show) concluding that the existing levees wouldn’t hold. In response, the Corps did--wait for it--nada.

Throughout The Big Uneasy, the question keeps coming up: Who are these Army Corps people? Are they corrupt or just arrogant and incompetent? Shearer’s subjects are quick to say that the Corps has many brilliant, dedicated engineers etc. but that the outfit has, in the words of journalist Michael Grunwald, “a penchant to do the wrong thing.” But it flourishes because, in the civilian realm, it is the fount of water-related boondoggles, the very epicenter of pork. High up on the WTF list is MR. GO—the nickname for the Mississippi Gulf-Outlet Canal, a “75-mile ditch” intended to shorten the shipping route between the Gulf and New Orleans’s inner harbor. It was almost instantly obsolete for ships (too shallow) but proved remarkably efficient at channeling salt water through wetlands (destroying them) and, during Katrina, into the heart of Greater New Orleans. This is the “funnel effect” that a Corps representative denies on camera. (But kudos to her for appearing—even with the understanding that she won’t answer question about “the past.”)

This is a patchy little movie, and it’s occasionally bewildering. (It took me a while to figure out that the faulty pumps were built after the flooding, not before, and I was thoroughly lost by the cost-benefit-ratio stuff.) But the odd minutiae, the digressions, even Shearer’s tub-thumping on behalf of tourism do add up to something larger. As a bit called “Ask a New Orleanean” (introduced in fine kiddie-show style by John Goodman) demonstrates, the city is more than a fake Magic Kingdom of greedhead alcoholics that has no business even existing in a basin below sea level. The culture of New Orleans, however jumbled (gumbo-ed?), is organic. And the place made sense, geographically, when it was “inland” instead of “coastal,” surrounded by wetlands and wind-and-water-absorbing cypresses instead of ever-more-exposed to rising sea levels and surges. (Blues guitarist Tab Benoit makes wetlands seem very magical, indeed.) It could still make sense, suggests Shearer, if we’d just “Ask the Dutch.” They’ve been living in harmony with water for centuries. They don’t need little boys to put their fingers in dikes anymore.

Shearer, I should mention, doesn’t make jokes about fingers and dikes. He doesn’t make many jokes period. By the end of The Big Uneasy, I came to appreciate his self-effacement. He’s not a filmmaker or an investigative journalist. He’s not really in his element here. He just, finally, couldn’t stand by and hear “natural disaster” one more time without picking up a camera and, like his protagonists, doing his civic duty for the city he loves so deeply.

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Photo: The Notions Dept.