The Decline of the American Empire By Günter H. Jekubzik

in 63rd Venice International Film Festival

by Günter Jekubzik

Is it “good” timing or a macabre coincidence? Right between the first anniversary of the Katrina flooding in New Orleans and the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the 63rd Venice Film festival showed two features on these historical US-catastrophes. Quite opposite figures of US-cinema realised their views of these events: The afro-American civil-rights-activist Spike Lee and the white ex-soldier and (re-) writer of American history Oliver Stone got their screenings in Venice on the same day. With a clear sympathy for the social reality in Spike Lees four-hour documentary When the Levees Broke, the ones who have always been “drowning” in their (social) problems got far more sympathy than the pathetic port policeman Nicolas Cage under debris and ruins in Oliver Stones fictional World Trade Centre.

Both Americans are excellent directors, although it often seems Spike Lee is making films with all his heart and soul, so sometimes you can feel his rage. Oliver Stone however throws all his means into his films, overpowering every subject and viewer with an overkill of montage and emotions. Stones comment on 9/11 was unavoidable after he made his J.F.K. to a historical fact, gave the world another Nixon and revisited The Fourth of July. The friendly talks with America’s public enemy Fidel Castro were rather apolitical, so quite in the line of other supposed to be political themes.

World Trade Centre is a hymn on “New York’s Finest”, the courageous fire fighters and policeman of the city. (This time we don’t see the corrupt cops who control drug deals, prostitution and even politics.) Oliver Stone sends a troop of port policemen after the impact of the first airplane into the World Trade Tower to evacuate the building. Sergeant John (Nicolas Cage) eager to serve and protect has the lead. But before they can help at all, they are buried in the crashing building. Two of the men survive, jammed under heavy rubble. Between personal discussions, the film hurls fireballs on them, lets rain debris and ash. The cinema trembles from loud sound effects, another brutal attack on the viewer’s emotions is placed by the wives of the fire fighters, one of the women pregnant.

World Trade Centre is actually more a miner’s drama then a 9/11-feature. Stone cannibalises the national trauma extremely skilfully yet disgusting – which will surely pay off at the box office. Though the collapsing Twin Towers took nearly 3000 lives, the public will leave the cinema relieved, because Nicolas Cage survived. The last minute saviour is this time sent by God himself. Stone is able to control a picture perfectly – he just can’t control this talent.

How bad things really are in the USA was shown by Spike Lee in his more than four hour long, exciting, moving, intelligent documentary When the Levees Broke: the interviews, the original documents, photos and the excellent musical choice are giving the so well featured news of the New Orleans catastrophe real human depth. They let the viewer feel the tragedy of the social disaster, which began only after the hurricane. The not quite wealthy inhabitants of New Orleans were simply forgotten. The US-Army was able to supply Indonesian victims of the Tsunami within two days, but could not deliver water to their own citizens in Louisiana in five days! The victims were already forgotten when the nation did not build the dams decently and high enough. Spike Lee shows this scandal of a self-righteous, arrogant government.