Spike Lee's intentions, and ambitions, are clear from the first moments of ``When the Levees Broke." A message, scrolling across a black screen, declares this a ``film document": not a movie about Hurricane Katrina so much as an artifact itself, an act of record keeping.
That's a bold idea, and goes a large way toward explaining why Lee takes four hours to tell his story. And there are moments -- just a few of them -- when the film, which premieres tonight at 9 on HBO, does feel a bit like work, a relentless civics lesson about the storm and its still-unfolding aftermath.
Then again, we need the reminder. Our national attention span is short, so most of us diverted from New Orleans long ago. We haven't quite forgotten the images Lee offers in montage after montage, the footage of water rising and bodies floating. But most of us have been only vaguely aware of how slow the recovery has been. At one point, Lee tells us of a 5-year-old girl whose body was found in March. March. More than seven months after the storm, and they still were finding dead people.
It's a fact that comes and goes without much fanfare; there is so much to say here that Lee doesn't dwell on any idea for too long. He breaks his work into four ``acts," roughly definable as the storm, the blame game, the diaspora of evacuees, and the overwhelming process of rebuilding.
He provides no narration, telling the story through voices, instead -- largely from dozens of New Orleanians, black and white, who stand in front of mostly static cameras and just talk. Musician Terence Blanchard, who composed the haunting score, also appears as both witness and conscience. He plays trumpet on the ruins of a devastated street, leads his mother to tour her flooded house, breaks down and cries.
We see a fair amount of tears during the course of these four hours, but the emotion that infuses this film is mostly anger. It manifests itself in rants, in angry graffiti on damaged homes, in sassy costumes worn on Mardi Gras day. (One woman dresses her young son as an old man, still waiting for insurance money. It's a very New Orleanian reaction: despair converted to a mix of humor and bile.) Now is a time to be thankful for cable TV, since the profanity -- and there's a lot -- belongs here, every word. It wells up from frustration and dismay. It's part of the record.
Lee is clearly angry, too, and that helps make ``When the Levees Broke" feel more like time-capsule fodder than journalistic investigation. Yes, the film is also loaded with authority figures, who help navigate the history of flood control and the considerable failings of the government. (The federal government gets by far the most blame, and deservedly so; Mayor Ray Nagin comes across here mostly as a victim.)
Lee makes a convincing case that, compared to 9/11, this is the far worse disaster. But he isn't here to give an evenhanded account, and his disdain for President Bush can cloud his filmmaker's judgment. In a rare bit of self-indulgence, he makes us watch three times as Bush tellsFEMA Director Michael Brown, ``Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Lee provides few chances for accused villains to defend themselves, even lamely. And he offers a few accusations that go mostly unchallenged, such as the idea that the government intentionally blew up levees. It would be nice, historically speaking, to close the door on this one; former Mayor Marc Morial does himself a disservice when he says there's room for doubt. Still, it's hard to blame Lee for including the conspiracy theory itself. If people are distrustful enough to believe it, that's part of the record, too.
Lee's other weakness is allowing a few voices that don't belong: people with no special authority besides an ability to rail against familiar foes. Yes, Al Sharpton can spin a witty diatribe against Barbara Bush, but who needs him when we have Phyllis Montana LeBlanc , a fiery New Orleanian with a long, rich tale of woe?
Her retelling of an encounter with an airline worker is unprintable but grand. And her determination to stay in her city is not unusual. ``Whether you try to drown me or I die naturally," she says at one point, ``I'm gonna stay here till the end."
It would be nice to believe her spirit is all the city needs -- that rollicking jazz funerals are proof that New Orleans will return, even better. Despite the physical reality and the political culture he so convincingly documents, even Lee seems to cling to the metaphor .
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.