Miracle at St. Anna is easily the most expansive film Spike Lee has ever done —it spans four decades and a couple continents — but it’s also one of his weakest, an absolutely blundered, needlessly convoluted, and frequently boring war film that squanders the good idea at its center and wastes several actors in its quest for head-shaking melodrama. Lee is an accomplished filmmaker and gifted storyteller whose explorations of race relations and modern America, ranging from Do the Right Thing to 25th Hour, have been eye-opening, challenging films. That’s probably the biggest of the many disappointments of Miracle at St. Anna: that a director who’s proven himself so adroit at creating compelling characters in heightened situations would stumble so badly in his attempt to tell a tale about the Buffalo Soldiers and the invasion of Italy in World War II. It’s overwrought, overacted, over-scored, and more than anything it feels like an ironic examination of war film instead of a genuine story in its own right. It’s like Lee thought he could hold a mirror up to what he feels is the sorry state of war flicks, but forgot that he’d just reflect the same old problems.
The film opens in Harlem in 1983, with an elderly black postal worker pulling a Luger from behind his station and shooting an old white man he clearly recognizes from long ago. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of this act or the self-aggrandizing way it’s executed, right down to the bloody gun coming to rest on the floor in the dead man’s hat. It’s as if Lee is eager to get right the iconography at the expense of making the film feel remotely real or connected to the world we know. Things only get more unrealistic when a police detective (John Tuturro) shows up in a porkpie hat and spends all three of his minutes onscreen bantering with a cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a jittery, slang-filled patois that screenwriter James McBride probably lifted from his own novel, though it’s right in line with Lee’s willingness to do anything he can to make the film feel removed from human emotion. (There’s no sense me even bothering to check the men’s character names against IMDb, since they’re barely around long enough to make a difference.) Eager Reporter interviews the old man in a psych ward, and the shooter says simply, “I know who the Sleeping Man is,” at which point the film shifts to 1944, where it remains for most of its ponderous 2 hours and 50 minutes.
The story revolves around four soldiers in the 92nd Infantry Division: Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). After a massive firefight with the Nazis while crossing a river, the four men are separated from the rest of their division and forced to survive in an Italian village. As characters, they’re not unlike the extremists Lee’s fond of using — Stamps hates his captain but always follows orders, Bishop is rebellious and kind of generally horny all the time, etc. — which puts them at a disadvantage to begin with since those are just more obstacles between their being able to emotionally connect with the viewer. But it’s with the big, simple Train that the film proves most confounding. His faith manifests itself as a weird series of superstitions, and he’s so clinically dumb that he comes off somewhere between comic relief and just plain pitiable. Train rescues a young boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), from a barn that’s been destroyed by mortars, believing his luck and the boy’s presence to be a result of the head of a statue he considers to have some kind of talismanic power: He rubs the statue head from time to time and earnestly tells Cummings that it makes him invisible and gives him the power of five people. The soldiers and the boy take refuge in a local village, which is when the narrative officially gives up the pretense of momentum and the soldiers languish for an indistinguishable amount of time for incomprehensible reasons. They assume (rightly) that there are Nazis everywhere, but they never do any recon or attempt to figure out a way back to the rest of their fellow soldiers.
But the tragic part is that whenever Lee digs into the story’s history, he comes up with some genuinely interesting stuff. Stamps and Bishop have a solid dynamic rooted in their conflicting beliefs about what it means to be a black man in America and its Army, and things get trickier when they both inevitably start to put the moves on Renata (Valentina Cervi), the daughter of a local family who’s also conveniently stunning. There’s also a lot of conflict between the Buffalo Soldiers and local Partisans, something that’s almost never seen in U.S. war films and goes a long way toward making the film’s interminable second act a little easier to take. But the good fragments of story are too buried in the film’s cheesy aesthetic, weighed down by Lee’s indulgence of the movie’s length and, most egregiously, the near-constant and heavy-handed score from longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard. The bleating horns turn drama into kitsch, and the lighter moments between Train and the boy become almost indescribably weird, these little nonsensical exchanges between a crazy man and a delirious kid that are often cringe-inducing and feel completely out of place with the legitimate human drama and horror of war that Lee seems to happen upon at random.
That horror’s a pretty big thing, too. Miracle at St. Anna is violent even by the standard Steven Spielberg set in Saving Private Ryan, and Lee isn’t afraid to confront the brutality of dying men or the depravity of slaughtered civilians. Between that and the whole problem with actually making a consistenly relatable film, the actors don’t have much to worth with, since they’re walking and speaking in whatever cliché seems to best fit the moment. (And I won’t even begin to get into who/what the Sleeping Man actually turns out to be, but it’s laughable and weird and feels, like the rest of the film, tacked on and random.) Of the four central actors, Ealy and Alonzo come the closest to creating characters that, if not stellar, at least wind up feeling like real men by the end of the film. Luke shows a propensity for a leadership role that’s squandered in his lack of character development, though it doesn’t begin to compare to the erratic casting of recognizable names (John Leguizamo, for one) in pointless roles that are barely used and never amount to anything. What’s more, the flashback setup makes for a weaker structure to begin with, and the bookends set decades later turn what might have been a solid war drama into a turgid, head-scratching, and shallow meditation on the nature of justice. Lee’s film is too scattershot to work as an intimate story and too uncontrolled to feel like anything other than a bungled epic. He’s a better director than this, but watching the film, you’d be forgiven for forgetting it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.War Daze
Film | September 26, 2008 | Comments ()