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When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

Reviewed By William Goss
Posted 12/22/06 18:46:16

"Come Hell And High Water"
5 stars (Awesome)

Last August, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the greater New Orleans region, causing over $80 million worth of damage and resulting in nearly 2000 fatalities. This past August, director Spike Lee premiered his documentary, 'When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,' an indispensable chronicle of the devastation and aftermath of Katrina thorough enough to easily justify the requisite investment of a minimal four hours on behalf of the viewer.

As the subtitle suggests, Lee (the overrated Inside Man) has divided his lengthy doc into four chapters, following a tenuous chronological procession from disaster to recovery. The first two acts evoke the immediate fear, chaos, and desperation of those unwilling or unable to evacuate in time, and illustrates the swiftly deteriorating circumstances in which they found themselves, not the least of which being their frustration with the staggering incompetence of an undeniably oblivious government. Rescue efforts were made – some succeed – yet genuine relief is nowhere to be found in the face of a tragedy arguably greater than that of 9/11. Such extensive hindsight comprehensively reveals the passed bucks, contagious rumors, and broken lives that remain amidst the ruins and regret.

The considerable majority of information provided in Levees stems from a surplus of interviews from many New Orleaneans themselves, gathered from a cross-section of color, class, and locale, not to mention members of the media, such as anchorwoman Soledad O’Brien, prominent politicians (Mayor Ray Nagin, for one), and the most well-known of volunteers, actor Sean Penn. These interviews confirm both the variety and extent of many an obstacle, expressed with the sincerest human intimacy and laced with heartbreaking moments of gallows humor. Only one belated diagram provides the slightest ounce of scale, but these interviews more than provide a valid sense of scope.

For the most part, the doc progresses at a reasonably engaging pace, and while the need for more prudent editing inevitably arises, it never sabotaging the proceedings entire. The most significant sidestep occurs with the lenience of Lee on behalf of his frequent musical collaborator, Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans native. However touching the return home by Blanchard and his mother may be or a beat poet's recital, it feels rather indulgent in comparison to other segments, a portion more suitable for the DVD addendum entitled “Next Movement.” This informal Act V serves as a 105-minute epilogue and plays like the ungainly collection of talking heads that the chief sections themselves threatened to become. While the included footage is still compelling, its seemingly random assembly and the cheap inclusion of the occasional sound effect (a gunshot here, a whimpering dog there) significantly dilutes its impact in contrast to that of the passionate and poignant main feature.

Still, in spite of its flaws, 'When The Levees Broke' remains an exhaustive and exhausting documentation of the nadir of conditions in which such a crisis could occur, a justified indictment of the absolute worst-case scenario in terms of bureaucratic response (or lack thereof) and sociopolitical ramifications, and a cathartic portrait of a community left in a state of perpetual repair.

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