First Run Features // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // July 2nd, 2009
How government and big business bring ruin to America's infrastructure.
In the interview included as a bonus feature on this disc, America Betrayed's director, Leslie Cardé attempts to ward off the possible complaints that this film is yet another rehash of the Hurricane Katrina disaster by insisting that it addresses the causes of the disaster rather than its aftermath. She's only partly right. America Betrayed has some interesting revelations and facts, but too much of the film is exactly what it's not supposed to be: a rehash of the Katrina disaster. Cardé has squandered an extremely valuable opportunity to discuss a vitally important issue -- the failing of America's infrastructure through a mixture of corruption and neglect -- by wasting so much time on stories about Katrina's aftermath. There's an interesting story here, but the film only tells it in spurts.
America Betrayed purports to discuss the significance of an obscure but vitally important federal agency: the Army Corps of Engineers. Little-known to most people, they are the agency charged with designing, building and maintaining all federal structures. Federal buildings, dams, levees, canals, and bridges are just some of the structures the ACE is responsible for. What Cardé charges is that even though the ACE is a military division, it has become nothing more than a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy that awards fat no-bid contracts, ignores sloppy work, and punishes whistleblowers who attempt to expose the agency's cronyism and incompetence. That would only make it a terrible agency if not for the fact that when the ACE fails, the consequences can be catastrophic. The levees that failed in New Orleans during Katrina were supposed to be guaranteed by the ACE. The bridge that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007 was, too.
America Betrayed does have some remarkable disclosures about the ACE's failures that paint a damning portrait of just how disastrously flawed the agency has become. The best section examines one of ACE's most significant fiascoes: the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Known locally by its acronym as Mr. Go, it was initially conceived as a way to cut a straight waterway through the Mississippi delta for commercial barges in the 1960s. Lucrative government contracts were signed and many promises of economic benefits were made. Forty years later, Mr. Go has actually done far more harm than good. The waterway was so badly designed and built that it's eroded giant chunks of land from the delta, making it far too shallow and unstable to be used by all but the smallest boats. Even worse, it provided a straight conduit for warm Gulf water to reach the city of New Orleans, giving Katrina a shorter and faster path inland than it would have had if it had gone through the original untouched delta. This is the kind of investigative filmmaking that the film should have more of. Though the ACE itself declined to cooperate with the film, Cardé has done an excellent job of uncovering their lapses.
Unfortunately, it's only a part of the film. America Betrayed clocks in at 92 minutes. Nearly 45 of those are spent on stories of people who endured Katrina relating the aftermath. These are indeed gripping and harrowing stories, but what do they have to do with the subject at hand? The ACE has apparently exerted severe political and economic pressure on civil engineering agencies and organizations that attempt to point out their shortcomings. There are several other ACE projects that have been so badly mishandled that state governments have been forced to step up on their own behalf to repair them. These facts are briefly mentioned in passing, but why didn't Cardé spend more time on them? The Katrina stories simply take up valuable time that could have been better served discussing the work the ACE does and why it's so important to reform it. The fact that both President Obama and Senator John McCain are shown in clips discussing the ACE's shortcomings and that several fiscal conservative groups have complained about the agency's wasteful and inept spending prove that this a bipartisan issue that deserves more scrutiny, but this film is just not focused enough to provide it.
None of the extras fill in the holes. The "Director Interview" (9:09) consists of Cardé answering questions she had been asked repeatedly at film festivals. None of them really explain why she made exactly the film she claimed not to have made. There are some "Bonus Interviews" (7:33), but these are too brief to explain much. The text extras include Cardé's biography and a bibliography of books and websites to consult. At least the anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix are acceptable.
Ultimately, the film's tagline promises something that America Betrayed doesn't really deliver. This is a hugely important topic but it's not handled well. Cardé should have had the discipline to not delve so much into the Katrina survivor stories, no matter how engrossing they are, and instead focus on the less cinematic but far more significant topic of infrastructure. There are enough interesting facts here to make this worth a look, but not enough to recommend this film wholeheartedly.
Guilty of not fully exploring an important subject.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated