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HBO presents
When the Levees Broke (2006)

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
- President George W. Bush, days after he was informed in a briefing about the possibility that Hurricane Katrina could breach the levees of New Orleans

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 03, 2007

Stars: Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, George W. Bush, Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, Condoleezza Rice, Sean Penn, Terence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Al Sharpton, Soledad O'Brien, Barbara Bush, Kanye West, Al Sharpton, Dick Cheney
Director: Spike Lee

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 04h:15m:45s
Release Date: December 19, 2006
UPC: 026359397325
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+B+ B+

DVD Review

You look at the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina and you'd have to say that it's more than a shame—something of this magnitude has to be a sin, if not a crime. Spike Lee has made an extraordinarily restrained yet devastatingly powerful documentary about what happened when Katrina made landfall in August 2005, and the meteorological, political, and social carnage it left in its wake, particularly for the citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi. It was a perfect storm in many respects, and there's no shortage of blame to go around: to government at every level, to the Army Corps of Engineers, to the effects of global warming, to name only a few. It's easier to do finger pointing when your house hasn't been obliterated, though, or you're not consumed with grief for a loved one who, it's absolutely clear, didn't need to die.

Like Martin Scorsese, Lee has put together a body of documentary work that's at least as good as his feature films, and he's been able to leverage his celebrity to get access. To some extent, then, he becomes the Bob Woodward of Hurricane Katrina—if you don't sit for an interview and tell your own story in your own words, somebody else will tell your story for you, and more than likely in a manner that you'll consider less than accurate and flattering. Among those interviewed, then, are New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, whose in-state political squabbles (he endorsed her opponent; she never forgave him) have been well documented and undoubtedly led to the reign of chaos in the Crescent City in the wake of the storm. Coming off especially badly—and deservedly so—is the federal government—President Bush remained creepily detached, Brownie was doing a heckuva job, and the Secretary of State got some kicky new pumps at Ferragamo as people drowned in the streets of one of America's great cities. Lee's story isn't confined to familiar names, though—among those he interviews are the Mississippi man whose neighborhood was being visited by the Vice President, and just as Mr. Cheney did to Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate, this gentleman invited the Vice President to perform an intimate, anatomically impossible act.

The thesis of the film, essentially, is that all the devastation was caused not by the hurricane itself, but by the criminal lack of preparedness, for the levees which in theory should have protected great swaths of the city gave way, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. The conspiracy theory goes that the levees were exploded, so as to flood the poor neighborhoods and keep the rich ones relatively dry; that ascribes a kind of competence to the government, though, that was so obviously lacking at every other step of the way that it's hard to imagine. And in a broader political context, Lee gets at a point that Frank Rich has made so well in The Greatest Story Ever Sold—that is, that the many misgivings about the Bush Administration's capacity to meet a significant challenge that have been raised by the war in Iraq were ratified and confirmed by the rank and lethal incompetence that characterized the federal response to Katrina.

And of course there's the question not just of geography, but of race. If it were predominantly white faces crying for help at the Super Dome and the New Orleans Convention Center, would the response have been more swift, and more efficient? You can't help but think that the answer is yes, especially given the President's mother's cavalier, Marie Antoinette-like remarks about how fortunate those taking shelter from the hurricane in the Astrodome were. Historian Douglas Brinkley is excellent in providing some context, particularly with regard to Hurricane Betsy, which hit New Orleans in 1965; and Lee gives the chance for many of those affected by the hurricane to bear witness, to tell their stories, and if you're not moved by the horrors they have faced and the response of our government, you must be hard hearted indeed, or perhaps a FEMA employee. Lee interviews some more famous sons and daughters of New Orleans, as well, including Wynton Marsalis, and particularly moving is Terence Blanchard—he not only composed the music for the film but also had Lee's camera crew accompany him and his mom when they went to check out her house for the first time after the storm. A lifetime has been washed away in the flood; she's heartbroken, and so are we, and then she's angry, and we all should be too.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Lee and his editorial team have assembled lots of news footage to go along with their new interviews, and it's all been transferred reasonably well, though the cinematographic quality, understandably, varies.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Generally a clean transfer, though on some of the news footage especially, the audio quality can be degraded significantly.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Spike Lee
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The film is broken into four parts, called (a bit grandly) Acts, and for this DVD Lee has assembled an Act V (01h:47m:22s), which is essentially an assembly of interesting bits that didn't have a proper place in the main narrative. There are no shortage of horror stories here, especially about those who, for their own reasons, refused to evacuate, many of whom paid with their lives. Lee provides an enlightening commentary track as well, over the first four episodes, discussing seeing news coverage of the hurricane while at the Venice Film Festival, and the subsequent commitment he got from HBO to fund this project. He's also candid about those who refused to be interviewed, including DHS Secretary Chertoff and Secretary of State Rice. (Too busy shopping, I guess.) And Water Is Rising (07m:52s) features highlights from Blanchard's haunting score over still images of the destruction wreaked by the hurricane and the documentary crew at work.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A deeply moving, carefully told, and necessary account of the worst natural disaster in our country's history.


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