"President Bush can kiss my ass, the United States government can kiss my ass, and St. Bernard Parish can kiss my ass." Random comment from a stranded resident of New Orleans in When the Levees Broke, the latest joint from Spike Lee. Clocking in at four hours and twenty minutes, this is a massive testimonial of first-hand pain, exhaustion and raw, bloody anger that mostly aims for the heart, instead of the head. Even the editing of this film is angry, occasionally cutting rapid-fire through nearly identical testimonials -- 'I heard a boom - there was a loud boom - there was this boom - then bang, this loud noise' -- as if to head-off anyone who might quibble with the survivors' memories. Survivor is the operative word here -- it's a Holocaust-style remembrance, with interviewees often too choked up to finish a sentence but determined to get it all out. In between the personal stories, Lee also reboots those images burned into our collective media brain. We see Spicoli paddling his dinghy and looters surfing away on flat screens. We relive the record needle-scratching moment when Kanye West opines that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," while Mike Myers stares blankly ahead.
The film is divided into four "acts," each about one hour, and the first three acts are almost entirely devoted to the detailed recollections of the victims, chosen for their proximity to the event, not because they possess any special oratory or analytical skills. Some of these talking heads give memorable testimony, some do not. One survivor gives out her phone number on screen -- 504.919.8699 -- and challenges Barbara Bush to call her and defend those asinine statements she made in the Astrodome. Another cuts through some nonsensical reconstruction estimates: "They're gonna repair in eight months what they couldn't build in forty years?" Lee does some of these people no favor by allowing them to expound on the fatuous belief that the levees were dynamited by the U.S. government to exterminate the black population of New Orleans. This canard is repeated ad nauseum throughout the film's first half, to its great detriment. We're also forced to endure the drooling crackpot Harry Belafonte, pushed in front of the camera to billow hot air about the greatness of Hugo Chavez, for some reason.
As a whole, the commentaries form a substantial document, but it's something to be viewed once, not savored as great filmmaking. As we slog through the second hour of them, it starts to feel like work. Lee doesn't have the sixth sense of a documentarian like Ken Burns, who tweaks and polishes the output of his talking heads until they seem like thespians singing in plainsong. He does have a sense of humor, though. For comic relief, he sneaks in interviews with an old rich white couple who were away on a trip to Italy when the hurricane hit. Lee himself is invisible throughout, although he's heard a few times asking questions from behind the camera. Unsatisfied with the response of an engineering professor to a question on whether or not the levees are safer now than they were a year ago, he blurts out: "Is it safe. Is it safe. Remember Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man? Is it safe." This is good stuff, but around the halfway point the film starts to drag terribly, giving us a long history of Mardi Gras and other non sequiturs, thrown in presumably to maintain the one hour-per act structure.
That engineering professor is one of a handful of Expert Talking Heads, but instead of being sprinkled liberally among the survivor commentaries, he and the other experts -- on New Orleans politics, engineering, weather patterns -- are mostly corralled into the final hour of the film. Consequently, this fourth act is where the beef is. Like a procrastinating student who finally realizes at 3:00am that the essay due tomorrow won't write itself, Lee eventually buckles down and gets to work, giving us some documentary material worth our wait. It's also around this time that someone summarizes the entire event like a laser, with one well-chosen, Hemingway-like deconstruction: "The lake backed up a Category 1 hurricane into our levees, and they failed." That statement not only reminds us that Hurricane Katrina largely missed New Orleans, it also indicts the Army Corp of Engineers and the New Orleans city government and calls into question the basic premise of how much faith we can put in our civil engineering here in the United States. It reminds us that this documentary needs to answer a lot of serious questions if its to be taken seriously.
Once he decides to get down to business, Lee takes on one of the most intriguing subplots of Katrina: the decision of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to resist ceding military authority over her state to the U.S. Army, for cloudy reasons. A feud between Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has something to do with it, with the latter having broken ranks to campaign for Blanco's Republican opponent in the prior election. Blanco doesn't mount a strong defense of her decisions, but the film makes it clear that her hands were somewhat tied by having to contend with Nagin. Any random clip of him during the hurricane will make you wonder how he was ever elected to public office. "A total void" is how Blanco characterized him. When asked to give his recollection of the crucial moments on Air Force One with Blanco and President Bush, Nagin informs us that the President's plane is a "pimp mobile." He also seems to have forgotten the incident, described in Vanity Fair, in which he alarmed the Secret Service by sequestering himself in the airplane's bathroom and refusing to leave.
The remaining chapters of the film deal with the levee re-construction process, the criminal attempt by insurance companies to duck their claimants -- New Orleans has $30 billion in uninsured losses -- and the slipshod effort to regroup the city's population. Orleans Parish lost five-sixths of its people, most of them scattered to the four corners of the U.S.A. Faced with figures like that, what else is there to say? The film mentions some talk of a lawsuit filed by Governor Blanco to force the government to design a profit sharing program for oil exploration revenues generated in coastal waters off New Orleans, but no one seems to think anything will come of it. The final commentators are reduced to positing cruel fantasies, noting the fact that if New Orleans were to secede from the United States, it could claim ownership of its franchise as a major extraction hub. After all, it's the place where all of the country's seafood comes in and where the oil platforms are. "If we controlled all of this, everyone in New Orleans could drive a Bentley," someone says, with a sigh.