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When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts

There is not a more polarizing American filmmaker working today than Spike Lee, and, eighteen years following his first masterpiece of divisiveness, Do the Right Thing, it's a shame — those that loathe the director for his artistic excesses (and, most notably, his pugnacious personality) are now inclined to avoid his movies at all costs. Interestingly, Lee may have made inroads with some of his detractors in 2006 with his first avowedly commercial movie, Inside Man, which became his highest-grossing picture to date thanks to generally positive reviews and upbeat word-of-mouth. The conventional wisdom seemed to be that Lee had finally loosened up and kept his political agenda to himself for once. Though this wasn't entirely the case (there's plenty of smuggled-in subtext), it would be nice to think that audiences, having been entertained, would do the ol' provocateur a solid and settle in with his four-hour Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), because to avoid the work would be to miss out on the most important American documentary of this horrendously fractious decade, the political jeremiads of Michael Moore and his editorializing ilk, right or left, be forever damned

Beginning with the early warnings of Hurricane Katrina as a Category 5 storm — the highest classification possible — while at sea and concluding with an uncertain look forward to the future of the proud city it helped devastate, When the Levees Broke is a phenomenally comprehensive portrait of an event that most Americans are still struggling to understand. Combining interviews of many of the key players in the political drama — New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu — with harrowing recollections from a wide swath of regular folk caught up to one degree or another in the maelstrom, Lee — who complements these talking head bits with footage both new and borrowed — allows the tale to unfold as a slow burn in a way that recalls Do the Right Thing's inexorable amble toward its climactic conflagration. One of the more haunting sequences arrives in Act I with a casual exchange between a television news crew and a windswept gentleman who's come stumbling through the deluge to ask someone, anyone if they've heard about "that water coming over that levee." It's a quiet moment that underscores the sad fact that no one had an inkling that the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain and various canals were about to lay waste to New Orleans, particularly the poorer areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, in a way that Katrina, now a Category 3 storm, had failed to do. And once the levees break, Lee unleashes the scorn of his interview subjects, turning Act II into one of the most searing indictments of social inequality ever filmed, culminating with a montage of bloated, abandoned corpses that is all the more despairing for the fact that it happened in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. Acts III and IV bring Lee's saga to a close with dazed and indignant reactions to the inconceivable devastation, as many of his subjects, including Lee's longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard, return with loved ones to see what remains of their washed away homes and lives.

*          *          *

Though Spike Lee is certainly of a particular mind as to whom he holds responsible for the Katrina tragedy (notice his overemphasis on President Bush sputtering "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie"), he mostly lets his subjects vent their frustration, and their theories on what went wrong don't always jibe. For instance, some of the disenfranchised former residents of the Lower Ninth are convinced that the levees were blown — as they were during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 — in order to protect the wealthier segment of the population. For the conspiratorially minded (and this director has fallen victim to such thinking from time to time), it's a intriguing thought, but Lee presents the rational counter-argument with as much vehemence, and, as he moves into Act IV, focuses on the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers, who performed the slipshod work on the levees in the first place. It's yet another sign of maturity on the part of the filmmaker, who's come a long way from scrawling "Tawana Told the Truth" on a Bed-Stuy edifice in Do the Right Thing (through, regrettably, Lee does grant the ever untrustworthy Rev. Al Sharpton, the man who used the Tawana Brawley scandal for his own self-promotion, a voice in the documentary). Lee is also careful to dole out praise to certain deserving parties like the Coast Guard, who broke regulations to perform around-the-clock rescue missions while FEMA and the U.S. government fumbled to provide food, water, and shelter to the dispossessed. And though it seems he's enamored of Mayor Nagin, he doesn't exclude him from criticism either, though many seem to agree that his furious, justifiably profane calling-out of President Bush helped to hasten the government's way-too-late mobilization. But Lee's overall achievement is one of a societal mosaic that particularizes an incomprehensible tragedy while reminding viewers, with an embarrassment of visual and anecdotal evidence, that America is criminally indifferent to the plight of its poorer citizens, and that, in a time of great crisis, it stood idly by as they suffered and died. That it is such a remarkably measured indictment is evidence of Lee's evolving greatness. He is polarizing only because too many of his countrymen don't want to see what's wrong with their country.

HBO Home Entertainment presents When the Levees Break: A Tragedy in Four Acts in an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Spike Lee has contributed a commentary track for all four acts, and, unfortunately, it is far too subdued and unfocused to recommend. Had Lee been paired with a sharp moderator, this might've been a worthwhile listen; as it stands, it's a missed opportunity. Also less than essential is Act V: Next Movement (107 min.), which seems mostly like a collection of excised anecdotes. It's not useless, but it lacks the focus that makes the other four acts such a towering achievement. More interesting is "Water is Rising" (7 min.), a brief photo essay accompanied by Blanchard's mournful score. Dual-DVD packaging.
—Clarence Beaks



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