Monday and last night I watched Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke" on HBO (to be screened again on the anniversary of Katrina, 8/29/06, all four acts, 8:00 p.m.-midnight). Brilliant. Pasted below is a sufficiently agreeable but unremarkable NYTimes review -- NEWSgrist takes issue with it in at least one instance: the scene where the ER doctor (who is blocked from driving his salvage van to his destroyed house because of a Dick Cheney photo-op) finally parks his van and walks up to Cheney and his TV crew to exclaim on national television "FUCK YOU Mr. Cheney," referencing Cheney's own infamous "fuck you" remark in Congress. For those of us who watched that scene in awe last year, live and in subsequent TV commentaries, I think including it here is not, as Holden quips, a "cheap shot," but rather an essential (and high) point; it stands, as does the entire interview with that particularly ballsy individual, as one of the most emblematic if not cathartic moments for our collective rage and disgust with the ongoing travesty of this administration; not to mention, it provided some much needed (though dark) comic relief. Resonant indeed.
'When the Levees Broke': Spike Lee's Tales From a Broken City
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: August 21, 2006
It isn't the painful recapitulation of the incompetence, indifference and confusion in high places that makes Spike Lee's epic documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" a wrenching experience. What breaks your heart is the film's accumulated firsthand stories of New Orleans residents who lost everything in the flood after Hurricane Katrina, and the dismaying conclusion that a year after the disaster, the broken city has been largely abandoned to fend for itself.
A powerful chorus of witnesses and talking heads that cuts across racial and class lines was assembled for the four-hour film, to be shown tonight and tomorrow on HBO in two-hour blocks. Although seeds of hope are woven into this tapestry of rage, sorrow and disbelief, the inability of government at almost every level to act quickly and decisively leaves you aghast at what amounts to a collective failure of will.
The sights, familiar from television, are as shocking as ever: people stranded on rooftops waving signs pleading for help from passing helicopters and the thousands herded into the Superdome, which over several days turned into a giant, leaky sewer. Saddest of all are the personal stories of people who lost loved ones in the flood that inundated 80 percent of the city, leaving large sections looking like a bombed-out war zone. The sheer volume of suffering and misery chronicled by the film is crushing.
We hear horror stories of the ailing and elderly whose bodies were discovered by family members returning to their devastated homes. At the end of one chapter the film shows corpses, some covered, some not, left on the street to rot.
The trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who composed the film’s elegiac soundtrack, tenderly escorts his mother, Wilhelmina, to her ruined house for the first time after the flood, and she breaks down at the sight of destruction far worse than she had imagined.
Some comparative disaster perspective is useful. Calvin Mackie, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tulane University in New Orleans, notes in the film that the damage of 9/11 was confined to 16 square acres of Manhattan, while the devastation wrought by Katrina encompassed 90,000 square miles. At the time of the filming, which took place as recently as June, only 70 percent of the debris had been removed from the city, he says, and that 70 percent amounted to 25 times as much as was carried away after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Each chapter of the story has a musical prologue and epilogue (Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans" is heard twice) that lends the film the flavor of a traditional New Orleans funeral procession in which grief is transmuted into mournful celebration. Wynton Marsalis, a native son, offers a brief history of the city's culture and the special way music is embedded in the fabric of New Orleans life.
Even with its formal musical trappings, "When the Levees Broke" is the opposite of a Ken Burns documentary.
Where Mr. Burns's historical panoramas examine momentous events from a magisterial distance, Mr. Lee's documentary boils with anger and a degree of paranoia. Was it really necessary to bring in voices who suggest that the levees were dynamited, when no tangible evidence is offered beyond people who recall hearing sounds of an explosion during the storm?
[NG: They were dynamited after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, to flood the Lower 9th and thereby save the French Quarter and upper class neighborhoods; so YES, it was necessary...]
Occasionally the film can’t resist taking a cheap shot, as when it makes a side trip to Mississippi just to show a visiting Dick Cheney being taunted with obscenities. Thankfully such lapses of judgment are few and far between.
[NG: As noted above, your risk-aversion is insulting to our intelligence; that man had balls of steel Mr. Holden, balls of steel.]
Most of the events in the first two hours will be familiar to anyone who watched television news in the disaster's early weeks. It is in the last two parts — which examine the uncertain futures of tens of thousands of evacuees, analyze the engineering failures that allowed the flood to breach the levees, and speculate about the city's future — that the movie rises to greatness.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock of the Army Corps of Engineers says: "This is the first time the corps of engineers has had to stand up and say we had a catastrophic failure of one of our projects." No disaster in modern American history better illustrates the risks of cutting corners, then closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
Some of the stories that hurt the most describe indignities suffered by ordinary New Orleanians leaving the city, like those who were turned back by armed police officers as they tried to cross a bridge into the town of Gretna. There are also firsthand accounts of how the chaotic evacuation process separated parents from children as people were loaded onto buses dispatched to unknown destinations, with no return tickets.
As that evacuation began, even the estimable NBC news anchor Brian Williams referred to the flood victims as refugees, wrongly implying that these people, a majority of them poor and black, were citizens from another country seeking asylum in the United States. The term of course was uncomfortably accurate in evoking the attitude of the federal government toward a city with a high poverty rate, a crumbling educational system and no political value to the Washington establishment.
Douglas Brinkley, the author of "The Great Deluge" (William Morrow), observes that Louisiana has always been treated as colony from which natural resources could be extracted. Because its offshore oil wealth is beyond the three-mile limit, revenue from oil and gas leasing has accrued to the federal government, leaving the state without the funds to restore the protective wetlands, which have been compromised by industrialization, and shore up the levees that everyone from the top down has always known were vulnerable.
Hurricane Katrina actually missed New Orleans when at the last minute it veered slightly to the east, says Garland Robinette, an impassioned New Orleans radio personality. The worst winds to hit the city were of Category 1 or 2 force, he says. But even then, the levee system, which was supposed to withstand a Category 3, failed. The protections hastily erected since the disaster are described by Mr. Brinkley as "Lego levees."
"When the Levees Broke" has clear-cut heroes and villains. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin comes across as a salty, tough-talking leader bravely persevering in the face of social breakdown. Harry Belafonte and the Rev. Al Sharpton are treated as sages, and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, belatedly dispatched to begin the major evacuation, is hailed by Mayor Nagin as "a John Wayne dude." The villains are the usual ones from the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.
The film has no major new revelations about the outrageously tardy response of the Bush administration to the crisis, as if any were needed. The failures speak for themselves.
Today some New Orleans neighborhoods remain largely uninhabited, and the future of the Lower Ninth Ward, in particular, remains uncertain. Will it be taken over by developers, bulldozed and gentrified? Or will the city's spunky, independent spirit, which its residents believe to be one of its greatest resources, prevail? The answers to those questions may be a long time coming.
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A Requiem in Four Acts
Directed and produced by Spike Lee; Sam Pollard, producer and supervising editor; Cliff Charles, cinematographer; Geta Gandbhir and Nancy Novack, editors; Terence Blanchard, composer; Butch Robinson, line producer. For HBO: Jacqueline Glover, supervising producer, and Sheila Nevins, executive producer. A Spike Lee Film and a 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks production.