This is a lobbed softball compared with Spike Lee’s hard-hitting “When the Levees Broke,” but a worthy film nonetheless, if for no other reason than the fantastic underwater footage. As told through the eyes of Amanda Shaw and Tab Benoit, both established players in NOLA, the story of Katrina’s wrath becomes more personal but never rises to the level of heartbreak. Water, water everywhere and the people have not a drop to drink. Nor do they have food, but first some background:
The film began as a cautionary documentary about Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands (it sometimes seems like a sort of ecotourism brochure from the bayou’s director of marketing). When the hurricane struck, things took a sharp, unexpected turn. While mild, it is the early footage that makes up the most satisfying part of the film, due mainly to the wondrous close-up scenes of newborn alligators being hatched and interacting with their mother. These majestic creatures are visited later, after Katrina.
The brilliance of the bayou wetland scenes must be credited to director Greg MacGillivray, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on huge-screen photography. Whether underwater or overhead, these shots glow. MacGillivray made his bones lugging IMAX cameras to the top of Mt. Everest several years ago for a fantastic documentary. He has shot more feet of IMAX film than anyone else in the game, and his credentials are beyond reproach.
When the filmmakers begin to incorporate later footage, post-Katrina travel shots and studio scenes featuring violin prodigy Shaw, zydeco stylist Chubby Carrier, gospel singer Marva Wright and jazz genius Allen Toussaint, the focus of the movie dissolves. It cannot decide what it wants to be, and its depictions of the wrecked homes and roadways never really pound the viewer as hard as they should. In short, the film attempts to be a record of both an ecological and humanitarian disaster, but dilutes both stories in such a way that neither has much impact.
Benoit’s narration is particularly problematic. His Cajun take on the good-ol’-boy-next-door persona starts to get a bit cloying after a short time, though his bayou credentials are certainly solid. He’s one of the guys who navigate the waters in which the alligators are filmed. The rest of the narration is handled in blasé fashion by Meryl Streep.
The music is great, of course, but the song choices are those of a blind pedestrian. Do we need more hurricane footage accompanied by the crooning Aaron Neville? How about using another Dr. John song besides “Such A Night”? Shaw’s music is wonderful, as are the short snippets we get from Wright and Toussaint, but music is not the central flavor of this beignet, it’s more like a hastily added crème filling. All in all, it’s decent family entertainment that will educate Mom and the kids without scaring the hell out of them. As a primer on Cajun culture or a serious exploration of what happened at the time of the hurricane, it is a meager effort.
BY PAUL KOPASZ