"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.