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When the Levees Broke

HBO // Unrated // December 19, 2006
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted December 13, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
Forget 9/11. Ignore the supposed lasting impact of the War in Iraq. The defining tragedy of the 21st Century's first decade will definitely be the devastation associated with Hurricane Katrina. One year after terrorists took down the World Trade Center in New York City, people we're purposely preparing to move on with their lives, not allowing the horrors of that fateful day to deflate their determination. Similarly, the situation abroad has made Americans rethink their political position, questioning a policy that would allow our brave military troops to die for a cause that was poorly defined and badly mismanaged. But 16 months since a Category Five storm flattened most of the Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama Gulf Coast, a subliminal state of emergency still exists. Less than 25% of New Orleans residents have returned, and entire areas of the city – the flood devastated Ninth Ward, for example – are still in a condition of absolute destruction. There are limited services, a lack of available housing, and a general feeling that FEMA, and the Federal Government, could care less about the disenfranchised people (many of color) who lost everything on that fateful August day.

Spike Lee obviously agrees. Experiencing the devastation while abroad, he immediately picked up the phone in his Venice, Italy hotel room and called his collaborators. He was determined to make a documentary about the fabled Crescent City and its horrifying loss. When the Levees Broke, however, became much more than a post-devastation fact film. This masterpiece of human movie making acts as an indictment of a system that still uses race and class as a determining factor when it comes to relief – and paints a shocking portrait of a society lost in mixed meanings and misguided messages.

The Plot:
As it skirted the coast of Florida and headed up the Gulf of Mexico, meteorologists feared the worst. The warm waters between Key West and Louisiana were already fueling the forceful hurricane named Katrina, and worst case scenarios were being proposed. If it kept up at the current pace, New Orleans would be slammed by one of the strongest storms ever recorded – a killer Category Five, with sustained winds in excess of 155 mph. As the warnings went out, everyone considered the consequences of a direct hit to the famed port city. More or less a bowl surrounded by less than secure levees, the below sea level metropolis was facing the possibility of obliteration. Then, as luck would have it, Katrina curved slightly to the East, sparing the city the full brunt of its fatal force.

And then the explosions occurred. Maybe it was just the sound of earth heaving and dismantling, but residents of New Orleans Ninth Ward swore they heard the noise of manmade material discharging. Before they knew it, their area was underwater, tons of water rushing in and destroying everything the impoverished area had manage to make over the last several decades. As the survivors waded out onto the empty NOLA streets, they headed for the last place they knew could contain them – the Superdome. Sadly, many lost their lives there. In one of the most outrageous examples of Federal failure ever, it took the US government FIVE days to respond. Even worse, it was two weeks before President Bush even made it to the scene. By that time, the damage was done. But for New Orleans, the nightmare was just beginning.

The DVD:
In some respects, Spike Lee should stick to making documentaries. It's not that his fictional films are bad – indeed, when you line up masterful efforts like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Bamboozled and Inside Man, his credits seem rather secure – it's just that he does such a remarkable job with purely factual material. In 1997, his revisiting of the famous 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that killed 4 Little Girls was nominated for an Oscar, and many consider his HBO look at football legend Jim Brown to be both simultaneously definitive and disturbing. But now, with the overwhelming dense subject of Hurricane Katrina and the US Government's response to same, Lee has struck the subject matter motherload. Taking an approach similar to Stephen Spielberg and the Shoah project (his ongoing dialogue about the Holocaust and the survivor's stories), Lee has stated that he intends to use the tragedy in New Orleans as the basis for an ongoing look at the state of race in the United States. Judging by the brilliance inherent in When the Levees Broke, the politicos behind the horrendous hurricane response policy will have a cinematic sniper sighting them up for the rest of their lives. Lee does an amazing thing with this rock solid response to the 2005 calamity. He doesn't twist the material to make his point. He doesn't line up individuals who will only side with his sentiments. Instead, he does what any good fact filmmaker does – he finds the important and necessary voices that need to be heard, and simply turns the camera on them and lets the narrative flow.

It's a mindblowing, emotional experience (especially for anyone living in storm vulnerable areas like this critic). To watch a city, famed for its food, fun and fabulous cultural significance, get more or less wiped off the face of the Earth is just surreal. But then, to make matters worse, we witness a government that seemed to openly suggest that New Orleans – and its mostly minority citizenry – just weren't worth saving. Indeed, any indication of their tendencies toward the area can be summed up in the supplemental material presented as part of this DVD package. In essence, New Orleans is still a wasteland, and no one is rushing in to restore it. Even though President Bush has promised to meet the needs of the city's rebirth, the US has done very little to settle the situation. During the course of the gut wrenching four hours of the original production, Lee lets individuals who survived floods, famine, a lack of sanitation and basic human necessities like drinking water and shelter describe how desperate things got. Then, as if to add more horror to the hideousness being proposed, we see startling film footage – much of it purposefully censored by America media outlets – of dead bodies rotting in stagnant water, people plowing through dark, dank sewage simply trying to stay alive, and throngs of displaced, desperate individuals herded together and treated like unimportant collateral damage. Again, Lee allows those inside the fatal fray sell his sentiments. The truth is, material as obvious as this doesn't really need an agenda to make its many points.

In fact, what Lee does here is more important than mere moviemaking. What he's doing is creating a chronicle – a living, breathing, and continuous consideration of an event that still hasn't fully resonated with the citizens of the United States. By giving individuals without the proper perspective an understanding of how truly terrible the situation was in New Orleans before, during and after the storm, and keeping the flames of blame fully fueled and burning bright, he destines the subject to be talked about and explored for decades to come. And frankly, once you see this shocking exposé, you'll agree that it needs to remain open and viable until all the heroes and villains are discovered and defined. Without spoiling the overall effect of this amazing mini-series, let's just say that all government officials, on the local, state and national level, look like clueless crackpots who can't seem to own up to the fact that people died and thousands had their homes devastated because of stupid decisions they made (and continue to make). Even more compelling, the individuals affected show an amazing mixture of anger and fortitude, realizing that the only thing capable of changing matters is their own determination. Some may condemn Lee for excusing the so-called "looters", or failing to discuss the supposedly rampant fraud perpetrated by claimants on FEMA, and the agency on others. Perhaps, in the future, all of these angles will be dissected and uncovered. That certainly seems to be the director's desired intent here, and if When the Levees Broke is any indication of his resolve, Katrina has found its tireless independent champion.

The Video:
Presented by HBO Video in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, the combination of filmed and video elements used by Lee for When the Levees Broke look exceptional. The imagery is crisp, and occasionally shocking in its detail. There are also hundreds of horrifying still photos used, and the transfer here captures them in all their gritty awfulness. Like any great work of art, this documentary looks masterful on the digital format.

The Audio:
Using musical cues recycled from Inside Man, as well as new movements composed by longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, the sonic situation on this DVD is just devastating. As the various voices clearly and distinctly tell their terrifying tales, and the soundtrack soars with ambient angst, the Dolby Digital Stereo does a fabulous job of mixing the two together to form a seamless emotional whole. As he does with many of his movies, Lee makes the aural as important as the visual. When the Levees Broke may be his most disturbing combination yet.

The Extras:
There are two major bits of added content here, both doing exactly what Lee vowed he would attempt when taking on this project. The first is a 90 minute addendum to the film entitled Next Movement. Combining previously unseen footage with brand new interview material, we see the story of Katrina continuing to unfold and expand. It is a major contextual compendium to the documentary and everything it stands for. Similarly, Lee is on board for a hilarious and heartbreaking full length audio commentary. While sparse in parts, this is one filmmaker not known to mince words, and many of the unspoken criticisms that float throughout When the Levees Broke are voiced in vehement denunciations by the angry and defiant director. Whenever George Bush, Dick Cheney or Condalezza Rice appear onscreen, the four-letter words and condemning epithets come fast and furious – and with good reason. Even without Lee's interjection, we can plainly see how false and phony the promises made by this administration actually are/were. Lee is merely along to make sure we don't miss a moment of the disingenuous bullshit. Finally, there's a fascinating photomontage set to Blanchard's amazing music. It's a moving tribute to the journalists and citizens who felt compelled to capture their dire circumstances in images for the rest of the world to see.

Final Thoughts:
When rap sensation Kanye West stopped a Katrina themed telethon cold with his simple statement of post-millennial American truth – "George Bush doesn't care about black people" – he got just part of the sentiment right. As Lee laments in his closing comments for this DVD release, what was readily apparent after the storm swept through New Orleans is that the most powerful man in the free world really didn't give a damn about any of the underprivileged, disenfranchised members of the Gulf Coast's obliterated communities. For a leader currently locked in a battle for his Presidential legacy, Iraq will only be a starting point. When all the international dust has cleared and the success or failure of the attempt to democratize the region is revisited, the stain on Louisiana will still be there – painful and completely unavoidable. And leading the charge will be Spike Lee. Armed with When the Levees Broke as his main ammunition, those who've so far dodged the bullet of responsibility will be hounded until the day they die – or be forced to fess up to the mess they made of things. Easily one of the best documentaries ever made, Lee's amazing effort earns the DVD Talk Collector's Series tag. Not just for the technical elements, mind you. No, something this important deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. We nearly lost New Orleans 16 months ago. Here's hoping that Spike Lee's motion picture masterpiece shames some people into finally trying to fix things – before it really is too late.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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