Fresh off the neighborhood basketball court and dressed accordingly, Harry Shearer sits in the shaded garden of his L.A. bungalow on a breezy Southern California afternoon, riffing about flood crests and levee failures. He keeps a home in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where a spillway is diverting water from the swollen Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain. Even as it battles some of the worst flooding in the river’s history, the Army Corps of Engineers has just vowed that its multi-billion-dollar revamp of New Orleans’ levee system will be done by this hurricane season. But Shearer has his reasons for doubting the Corps’ word.
This spring, the 67-year-old writer and actor best known for his role in This Is Spinal Tap (he plays the bassist who gets wanded by airport security for smuggling a foil-wrapped cucumber in his trousers) and voice-over work on The Simpsons (he does Messrs. Skinner, Smithers, Flanders, and Burns, among others) has been barnstorming his documentary The Big Uneasy, which lays the blame for the post-Katrina flooding of New Orleans on the Corps’ ineptitude and arrogance. For years, he’d been pressing that case through blog posts and his radio program, “Le Show,” but in late 2009, he decided he needed a bigger bullhorn. He funded the film with his Simpsons paychecks. “I just thought, here I am, and here’s some of Rupert’s money, so let’s go.”
Shearer cradles his basketball, leaning back in a padded wicker chair as his yellow Lab, Doris, sits at his feet. He can be characteristically wry when discussing the project, but The Big Uneasy itself is dead serious. “I got into this out of my passion for the city and my outrage that the story of a city’s near destruction had been sort of hijacked from it and rewritten by outsiders,” he says. “I had 90 minutes to undo five years of media narrative. I really couldn’t afford to fool around.”
The film opens with a quote from a Berkeley professor that sets the tone for an indictment of the Corps that, as Shearer says, is “amazing but not surprising.” It reads, in part: “With the right hurricane protection … the result of Hurricane Katrina would have been different: We call it ‘wet ankles.’ ” The movie then lays out why the Corps’ work—not Katrina itself—was responsible for the city’s brush with obliteration. For starters, the levees and flood walls it built weren’t robust enough to withstand the storm surge from the hurricane. More to the point, the Corps is a self-policing agency fed by congressionally championed pork projects such as New Orleans’ Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet Canal, known locally as Mr. Go. These colossal feats—or fiascoes—of civil engineering, say the film’s many experts, guest journalists, and whistle-blowers, exist to please campaign donors and constituents and to boost candidates at election time. There’s also the dark irony, in Shearer’s view, of the Corps’ spot on the government org chart. “After making this movie, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a little screwy to have an agency whose job is protecting people tucked inside a department whose job is to kill people.”
Despite the film’s unapologetic takedown of the Corps, Shearer is no polemicist. His appearances in The Big Uneasy are free of Shearerian satire. (Wendell Pierce and Brad Pitt provide voice-over, which was probably wise; viewers’ mental images of Otto the Bus Driver would probably undercut the message.) And he gives the Corps ample screen time to justify or deny its blunders. “I was determined not to [make it] a screed,” he says. “The story is frightening enough on its own. Screaming and horsing around only diminishes the power.” And besides, he adds, “I don’t believe in the ‘bad people’ theory—except in show business.” He tosses a tennis ball to Doris as a lifeguard helicopter thwaps overhead, then amends the sentiment further. “Some of the same dynamic happens in show business that happens with the Corps,” he says. “The real jerks, the real A-holes, act that way because they never get punished for it. There’s no disincentive for bad behavior, as long as you make money. The Corps lives in a similar cocoon of impunity. They almost destroy a major American city, and what’s their punishment?” He leans in, smirking. “Here’s $15 billion. Do it again!”
Shearer has to leave to do a Simpsons taping. He pats Doris on the head and answers a final, inevitable question. “Mr. Burns,” he says, is his favorite Simpsons character to play. “He’s pure evil. Most evil people think they have to dilute it some way.”