The Big Uneasy

The Big Uneasy


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

To many of those watching events unfold as Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the flooded city looked like something out of a disaster movie. Stranded citizens huddled on rooftops waving makeshift banners. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Some never had the chance. It was a disaster on an epic scale but, argues Harry Shearer, there was nothing natural about it.

New Orleans is, of course, dangerously close to the coast, on low-lying land. It is in an area prone to storms. But, Shearer argues, this doesn't have to be a problem - it didn't used to be. It isn't for cities like Amsterdam. New Orleans used to have natural phenomena offering it protection, and it could be protected even now by good engineering. In both of these areas it has been let down. Who is to blame? This film aims to find out.

Copy picture

In a refreshing change from similar works, Shearer, himself a part time resident of the city, isn't looking to blame big business. This isn't about greed but about subtler kinds of human failing - mismanagement, passing the buck, unwillingness to admit to errors. As such it requires a more carefully substantiated case, and this is both the film's strength and its weakness. The case takes a long time to build. Much of the first half of the film is too slow, too dry (though viewers outside the US may still find they're missing some bits of information which it is taken for granted that they will be familiar with). In the second half, however, as it starts to come together, it becomes emotionally as well as intellectually engaging. Interviewees speak with increasing passion and we start to see the impact that official responses to scientists and engineers determined to pursue the truth has had on their personal lives. Of course, not everyone who see this film will agree with its conclusion, but the case is very well made.

It's a brave thing for a modern documentary to take on such a technical subject. The issues involved are intelligently yet accessibly addressed. Unfortunately Shearer tries to spice things up a bit by cutting away to skits by John Goodman that feel awkward and out of place. His use of music is, in places, similarly at odds with the general mood. Elegant photography, however, goes a long way toward redeeming things. Shearer himself is charismatic as ever and there are several moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. The film is over-edited and visually gimmicky but it's still an interesting piece with some really important things to say.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2011
Share this with others on...
The Big Uneasy packshot
Why was New Orleans so desperately unprepared for Hurricane Katrina? This documentary explores the corruption and dodgy political dealings that made the disaster's impact worse.
Amazon link

Director: Harry Shearer

Writer: Harry Shearer

Starring: Harry Shearer, John Goodman

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


Glasgow 2011

Search database:

Related Articles:

Going for green