Judge Clark Douglas is merely medium-sized uneasy.
"This was not a natural disaster. This was a very unnatural disaster. This was a disaster caused by people."
Over the course of the past few years, it's been made clear that the devastation brought to New Orleans was not entirely a result of the natural disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made a series of critical failures that turned what could have been merely a bad situation into a massive tragedy. In the wake of the Hurricane, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devoted its resources to protecting itself and attacking those who called its integrity into question. It's a bitter, unpleasant story that needs to be told, but is Harry Shearer really the right guy to tell it?
My initial instinct would have been "yes." Shearer is an intelligent, thoughtful person (as evidenced by his newspaper editorials, his Huffington Post blog entries, and his numerous appearances on television talk shows addressing the subjects he explores in this film) and certainly has some personal knowledge of the area (he has been a part-time New Orleans resident for more than twenty years). Additionally, his sharp comic sensibilities suggested that he might be able to bring some flavorful bite to his take on this part of history.
Disappointingly, Shearer's actual movie proves much less involving than many of the public appearances he's made to promote the film. I expected the documentary to be smart and well-informed, which it most assuredly is. However, I didn't expect the execution to be so dry, amateurish, and uninvolving. Shearer assembles a sizable crew of individuals to give us the specific details on what happened piece-by-piece, but the manner in which the film is structured makes it feel more like a 90-page legal report than a gripping real-life drama.
Shearer adds to the dreary tone with his own appearances, in which he solemnly looks into the camera and makes a series of grave pronouncements. He seems to have transformed from impassioned activist into a living statue, perhaps a bit too overwhelmed by the importance of the subject he's addressing. Shearer attempts to add some entertainment to the proceedings by having John Goodman (seemingly reprising his blustery turn from David Simon's superb Treme) turn up every fifteen minutes or so to host a segment called, "Ask a New Orleanean." The scenes are meant to be satirically entertaining, but they're so clumsily staged and hosted by Goodman with such angry mock cheer that they just prove jarring distractions from the generally NPR-ish tone of the thing.
Alas, it's too bad the documentary doesn't have the polish of an NPR production. Shearer seems to struggle with finding a way to make his endless stream of information involving. He tries bringing in a series of celebrities to read snippets of important documents (we hear the voices of Brad Pitt, Catherine O'Hara, and Wendell Pierce, among others) and tossing in some occasional punches of musical flair, but The Big Uneasy never quite picks up full steam. For every strong moment Shearer presents, there's another scene that spends too much time on minutiae, struggles due to poor editing or makes an uncomfortable tonal shift.
Note: I reviewed a screener copy of The Big Uneasy, and thus I am unable to comment on the audio or video quality of the official release. There were no extras included on my screener, but the official release supposedly contain a commentary with Shearer, a featurette and some Q&A sessions with the director.
To be sure, The Big Uneasy is a well-intentioned film, and it's valuable if you're just looking for the basic facts on what happened. Still, it lacks both the emotional pull of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke and the polish of an in-depth New York Times article. It will prove a solid resource for high school students in years to come, but the average viewer has numerous superior options that cover similar territory to choose from.
Guilty, but not as guilty as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
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