Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts debuts on HBO tonight

Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts debuts tonight on HBO. The first two hours air tonight at 9 p.m. ET, and the film concludes tomorrow night at 9.

HBO calls it an “intimate, heart-rending portrait of New Orleans in the wake of the destruction [that] tells the heartbreaking personal stories of those who endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell the tale of misery, despair and triumph.” It does so via interviews with more than 100 people.

It’s those interviews, The New York Times’ Stephen Holden argues, that have an impact. “What breaks your heart is the film’s accumulated firsthand stories of New Orleans residents who lost everything in the flood after Hurricane Katrina, and the dismaying conclusion that a year after the disaster, the broken city has been largely abandoned to fend for itself,” he writes.

The New York Daily News’ David Bianculli says he “expected it to be his version of a Michael Moore frontal attack,” but instead “what Lee delivers, is a nonfiction work in which he is virtually invisible — and one that uses music, images, historical research and the onscreen testimony of close to 100 interview subjects to explore its subject thoroughly, honestly and rivetingly.”

The Times-Picayune’s Dave Walker says the film is “unfinished” because it “locks in on the black Katrina experience” and doesn’t also include “the stories of Lakeview families whose losses were every bit as tragic as the stories told so movingly in this film” nor “the Asian families in eastern New Orleans, the Central American workers literally putting roofs over our heads again, the doctors and nurses who risked their lives to stay with patients in drowned hospitals, the tourists who suffered alongside locals in the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.” But he adds that the film “packs an overall impact that will move anyone who invests the time to see it through.”

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts [HBO]