Miracle at St. Anna Movie Review

R, 160 min, 2008

Director: Spike Lee
Writer: James McBride (screenplay), James McBride (novel)
Stars: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso

Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna is a long, sometimes brilliant, often meandering, maddening, frustrating, yet powerful take on World War II – indeed, a war film like perhaps only Lee could make.

The film opens, uniquely enough, when an old black man (not so subtly) named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) sees an old John Wayne war film on TV. “We fought that war too,” he says – perhaps to himself, perhaps to the audience. The next day, he goes to work at the post office and, seeing a face from his past, reacts in a startling way. His reaction is investigated by a detective (John Turturro) and a geeky reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who are convinced there’s more to the story. Oh there’s more to the story, alright. Too much more? This man’s identity and the reasons for his actions will be explained at the latter end of a film that is 160 minutes long. Those who have the patience to wait that long will be mildly rewarded.

After this peculiar prologue, the film flashes back to World War II, introducing Negron and his brothers in arms, trapped behind enemy lines in Italy: Stamps (Derek Luke from Antoine Fisher), the leader; Cummings (Michael Ealy), a womanizer; and Train (Omar Benson Miller from 8 Mile), a naïve hulk of a teddy bear. Train finds the head of a statue at one point, and carries it with him wherever he goes, believing it will protect him from death.

The soldiers happen upon a small Tuscan village where they meet and befriend a number of Italian villagers, including Renata (Valentina Cervi), a sexy young woman; Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino), known as the Great Butterfly, who leads the village Partisans; and Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), the young boy who Train saves from death. We also get some surprise cameos, including John Leguizamo as a man reading the paper in Italy near the beginning who – well, if anyone can figure that out, let me know. There’s also D.B. Sweeney, Kerry Washington, and Walton Goggins of TV’sThe Shield as the viciously racist commanding officer of the black unit.

The film, directed by Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing), is a follow-up to the astronomical financial success of the heist drama Inside Man (2006), which starred Denzel Washington as a hostage negotiator and Clive Owen as a bank robber with an ingenious plan. Lee, who lets his films occasionally wander off the beaten path a bit, seemed capable then of indulging some idiosyncrasies in an otherwise straight-forward crime film.

Now, with a story from a novel by James McBride, who adapted the screenplay, it seems he’s been given carte blanche to transplant the entire book to the screen. One often wonders if there’s anything that was left out. Without having read the novel, I can only speculate on that front. Still, Lee has allowed his films longer runtimes in recent years, and yet even he should’ve known when his film was, perhaps, losing a bit of focus. There are just a few too many plot strands (not full-blown stories, you understand, but elements and styles) going on here – even for a 160 minute film. The film mixes war cliches, crime and mystery, a would-be romantic drama, and some syrupy sweet Italian neorealism to stunningly inert effect. Indeed, Lee says that films like De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951) were an influence on his film – and it shows.

There are some extraneous scenes which actually have a bit of weight. One standout is a sequence in which the men are being fired upon as “Axis Sally,” a Nazi femme fatale drones on via loudspeaker, attempting to entice the underappreciated black soldiers away from their side. There’s also an astonishing flashback to when the men were in training in the Deep South, and find themselves refused service at a local ice cream partner while a group of Nazi POWs is served and lounging in a booth of their own. These scenes are powerful, underlining the inherent racism of the time – just because Buffalo Soldiers were utilized during the war to fight for the American side doesn’t mean they were respected as equals.

This being said, the film demonstrates only a few of Lee’s strengths (impressive cinematography, strong performances), as well as a number of weaknesses, including a long, slow, plodding pace, a bludgeoningly loud and pointed musical score by Terrence Blanchard, heavy-handed melodrama, and a weak framing device which aids the film in culminating with an astonishingly obvious and foregone conclusion.

A confession: I can’t see the forest through the trees with some directors, and a great filmmaker like Spike Lee is one of them. However, this is clearly one of his weaker efforts in many a moon. If the film itself gets a “B”, then the “+” is for Lee himself, who never seems to fall below a certain level of quality in my estimation.

Note: Grading is done on a curve and then “leveled” off by half a grade.

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