When the Levees Broke (2006) – By Jonathon Pernisek

 It’s unfortunate how much time passed between my purchasing and watching the epic documentary that is When the Levees Broke. I say it’s unfortunate because this is, without a doubt, one of the most comprehensive and consistently enthralling films I’ve seen in quite some time. No other documentary could be as definitive when it comes to covering the many different angles of the New Orleans-Katrina disaster, and director Spike Lee should be commended for his exhaustive coverage of the event.

The subtitle of Lee’s film, A Requiem in Four Acts, should give you an indication as to the depths it means to go while investigating the Gulf’s catastrophic journey. These four acts run a total of four hours in length, and you would be hard pressed to feel that kind of time while watching them unfold before your eyes. Lee is clearly dedicated to looking at all the layers of this situation, and his passion directly influenced me from the opening moments. I know it may sound like I’m driving this point into the ground, but I solidify it for those who may be wary of what can appear to be an intimidating piece of work. Don’t worry, this is far from a textbook examination of facts and figures. This is a collection of all-too personal stories.

What’s most surprising is that, unlike other documentary directors like Michael Moore, Lee essentially keeps his own voice and face out of the proceedings, opting instead to let his subjects do the talking. And there are a lot of people willing to have their voices heard, from mayors and scientists to a host of everyday citizens of the New Orleans and Gulf area. You might think keeping track of all these interviewees would be a difficult and confusing task, but it’s not at all. Within seconds Lee knows how to put a face to a story, whether it be an elderly woman who’s seen the loss of her hard-won property or a ten-year-old trumpet player now without his instrument. Together, all of these names really paint a picture of the overall area, and I can’t imagine how much work must have gone into getting them all in front of a camera.

It also helps that every now and then Lee moves away from words and lets the original music of Terrence Blanchard underscore a series of photographic montages, which oftentimes had me grim as a result of their power. It’s one thing to hear about the citizens who died as a result of their staying within the city, but it’s quite another to see their bloated, discolored bodies floating atop immensely deep bodies of sewage-infested water. As many in the film are quick to point out, these people may have been able to weather the initial storm if the levees meant to protect the city had not been destroyed due to their horribly inefficient design. It’s a disturbing fact, to say the least.

As I have said, When the Levees Broke goes after just about any lead you could consider, and not all of them are pessimistic. A great deal of time is spent highlighting the cultural aspects of New Orleans, and how certain events, like the continued celebration of Mardi Gras, has managed to keep up the spirits of a people who now spend most of their waking moments trying to rebuild their lives. Lee doesn’t roll the credits having you think a happy ending is necessarily in store, but he does make a point of showing how some can stay strong even during the worst of times.

I cannot recommend this documentary enough, to be honest. If you feel you have become apathetic in these modern times, when George W. Bush’s incompetent administration seemingly couldn’t come off any worse, then you need to watch all four hours of this film. You haven’t felt anger until you’ve seen Barbara Bush tour the Superdome with a plastic smile on her face, commenting dumbly on how it appears that everyone is getting along just fine in the wake of this tragic storm. Ultimately, though, I think it will also reaffirm your faith in people, if only those who don’t live in Washington and actually know what it means to be a part of America.