The Big Uneasy

Critic's Pick The Big Uneasy
Director: Harry Shearer
Screenwriter: Harry Shearer
Cast: John Goodman, Harry Shearer
Release Date: 2010-08-25
Rated: NONE
Genre: Film

Let’s address the elephant in the room (or, if you like, the armadillo in our trousers): The prospect of viewing a documentary about the Katrina disaster written, produced, directed, and hosted by Harry Shearer — the man who voices The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, and Lenny Leonard, not to mention embodies Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls — seems funny. If not funny-ha-ha, then funny-peculiar, a recipe for profound cognitive dissonance.

But there he is, strolling through the colonnade at the French Market, speaking square and close into the camera in his natural lower-register, the timber and gravitas of which which serve as the common denominator for his Simpsons authority figures — think Reverend Lovejoy or Principal Skinnner. Despite the occasional distraction (as when he intones “ … as a part-time New Orleans resident,” a dictum of Hollywood weltschmerz if ever there was one), Shearer’s long-borne sadness and deep thought are present and credible.

The magic is in Shearer’s compelling, unapologetically complex presentation of the science and engineering behind Katrina’s destruction; the misery of the disaster is amplified in that it was amply foretold. Shearer allows science to make its own case. Several computer-animation sequences illustrate the flooding patterns, and our minds fill in the visuals we already know of the people on the roofs, desperately waving. A major Uneasy point: Katrina and its damage wasn’t so much “a 150-year weather event” as the result of a series of bad civil-engineering decisions. Uneasy’s stars and witnesses are the experts gone unheeded, living forever with the knowledge that had preventative measures been taken, nearly 2,000 dead New Orleanians might be alive now.

Where Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is an immediate, operatic barrage of first-person sorrow and outrage, and HBO’s Treme recounts a ballad of Katrina’s aftermath and after-mythos, The Big Uneasy derives its unique power from exploring little-discussed underpinnings. Racism, poverty, and the laissez-faire FEMA under the Bush Administration notwithstanding, Shearer and co. posit that the Crescent City was front-loaded for tragedy by a negligent and uncommunicative Army Corps of Engineers, the country’s de-facto infrastructure bureau. ACE whistleblower Maria Garzino, in particular, delivers a quietly damning testimony that calls into question not only NOLA’s levees, but our country’s safety. We can read the existential unease in her eyes, and believe me, there’s nothing funny about it.

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