America Betrayed

Sarah Hentges

There are some documentaries that really blow your mind. And then there are documentaries like America Betrayed.

America Betrayed

Director: Leslie Cardé
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, narrator
Distributor: First Run
Rated: not rated
Year: 2008
US DVD release date: 2009-04-21

There are some documentaries that really blow your mind. And then there are documentaries like America Betrayed. Don’t get me wrong, America Betrayed is full of interesting interviews and scandalous facts about government wrongdoings surrounding Hurricane Katrina. But it is nothing that has not been said before, generally and specifically.

Generally, it's no surprise to documentary audiences that the government is corrupt. If we didn’t know or suspect this before, plenty of documentaries have revealed this “collusion, corruption and cronyism”. And America Betrayed had the potential to make a substantial original contribution to this body of documentary works. A documentary about America’s crumbling infrastructure that shows the massive failures, the connections to the Army Corp of Engineers, and the influence of Congress would be interesting. It would add another piece to the puzzle. But this is only a very small part of America Betrayed. The bulk of this documentary focuses on the collapse of the levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A focus on Hurricane Katrina makes sense. It is the most well-known, most devastating catastrophe involving the Army Corp of Engineers’ projects in recent memory. It is the best example of the documentary’s thesis and illustrates “How Government and Big Business Bring Ruin to America’s Infrastructure”. But the problem is that America Betrayed simply lays out a bunch of evidence previously detailed in newspapers, magazines, books, and is considered by documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. The writers, community leaders and whistleblowers bring this information straight to the viewer, which should be a plus.

But there is so much repetition, dragging strings of talking heads, and a lack of organization and narrative development that America Betrayed is rather dry. It quickly makes its point and then drags it along for another hour plus.

The biggest “betrayal” on this DVD is not the scandals it details but the scandalously misleading DVD cover, title and description. Looking at the awards and blurbs, one might think she had picked up a much better documentary. It was a final selection at several film festivals and PopMatters is quoted saying that it is a “smart, galvanizing documentary”. A text box featured prominently under the tagline on the cover reads: ‘Featuring President Barack Obama, Senators John McCain and Mary Landrieu & more”. This “feature” is Senate footage of Obama and McCain as they go about their work as senators. Obama and McCain are not interviewed for the documentary any more than they are “featured” in it.

Reading the description, one might expect a completely different documentary. While America Betrayed does make references to other infrastructural issues and other geographic locations in peril, these details are glossed over and sometimes misrepresented. For instance, in listing other failures of dams and levees, the documentary mentions a dam in Hawaii that was not an Army Corp of Engineers project but groups it in as one of their failures.

Further, America Betrayed attempts to make connections to Iraq not simply in the blaming of the war in Iraq for the lack of money to help victims of Katrina to rebuild, but also arguing that American taxpayers are paying to build infrastructure in Iraq while our infrastructure at home is falling apart. This point is made quickly and simply and without the depth of detail or analysis offered in the case of Katrina.

After making these superficial comparative points, America Betrayed goes on to weakly consider the political and social implications connected to engineering failures. The cultural and economic importance of New Orleans are mentioned in a few interviews and many of the points made in the first third of the documentary are repeated before the watery conclusion finally trickles in.

The most disturbing and distracting aspect of this documentary is the fact that Leslie Cardé could make an entire documentary essentially about the destruction and aftermath of Katrina and not interview a single black victim. She interviews several white people who lost their homes and two or three black community leaders, but besides the Senate footage of Obama and the snippet of protests plastered with black faces, essentially these are the only non-white people in the entire documentary (and racism is only briefly mentioned in one bonus interview).

Thus, I was distracted most of the time, wondering if she purposefully avoided black people or if she just didn’t notice the omission. Perhaps black suffering has been 'overdone' and the only way to get people’s attention is to remind us that white people suffered too?

The DVD special features are, essentially, the only redeeming quality of this documentary. Extras include and interview with the director, a resource guide (“for those who’d like more information”) and bonus interviews including footage not seen in the documentary. The resource guide provides over a dozen websites as well as a recommended reading list and the interview with director, Leslie Cardé, includes answers to the frequently asked questions she and the filmmakers encountered at screenings including, “Why another movie that talks about Hurricane Katrina?”

Cardé, however, doesn’t think that America Betrayed is about Katrina but, rather, what happened before Katrina which she sees as “simply a springboard”. Unfortunately, this springboard is more like a trampoline.

While America Betrayed will most likely bore both those informed about the infrastructural problems as well as those uninformed about these problems, there are a few interesting tidbits of information and analysis offered sporadically. For instance, the discrepancy one interviewee asks us to consider between the unequal compensation of the victims of 9-11 compared to victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing who received no compensation. However, the documentary leaves very little room for analysis of this factor.

Also, Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism” is briefly introduced, which is explained in more detail in Cardé’s interview. Despite all of these weaknesses, if one is interested in American infrastructure failures and government collusion in these failures, America Betrayed offers some interesting information and analysis. It just doesn’t have enough to make me recommend you run out and view it before the next inevitable disaster happens.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.