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Human tragedy is not at the forefront of The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer‘s examination of what happened in New Orleans in August 2005. Shearer, the actor, voiceover artist, musician—he has plenty of other jobs too—says at the outset of his film that it is not a hurricane story. The flooding of New Orleans was a decades-in-the-making structural catastrophe made inevitable by years of shoddy engineering and make-work government contracts; it just happened to be set off by a storm named Katrina.
The Big Uneasy does not chuck aside the rawest suffering the rest of the country watched on television. But it does dismiss as media navel-gazing the conception of Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster that flooded run-down neighborhoods and only impacted poor black people who were forgotten as soon as something more interesting came on the TV. An early bit of animation shows the wreckage came from a network of collapsing levees that within hours inundated over 80 percent of New Orleans. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the culprit here; the agency needs no prodding from Shearer to be seen as a hulking bureaucracy more content to grab Congressional earmarks and spend decades building canals that by their completion are no longer useful. An external review by three engineers—one of whom, Maria Garzino, is a Corps contractor—finds the right solutions (regrow coastal wetlands, design more organic waterways, look to the Netherlands, a low-lying country that never floods), but the official reaction is swift and harsh.
The Big Uneasy is not always as grim as its message; John Goodman, like Shearer an adopted New Orleanian, jauntily hosts brief segments on the grit and endurance of those who weathered the flood. Colorful shots of Mardi Gras and the art that fills the city warm an otherwise dire assessment. One might be tickled by Shearer’s inherent wryness or Irma Thomas‘ crooning, but in the end you’ll seethe, and you’ll want to Google the location of the nearest levee.
Screens tonight at 6 p.m. at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. $10. (202) 717-0700.