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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