Christmas, 1983. A New York postal clerk, a Buffalo Soldier in Italy in World War II, shoots a stranger. In his apartment, police find a valuable Italian marble head, missing since the war. Flashbacks tell the story of four Black soldiers who cross Tuscany's Serchio River, dodging German and friendly fire. With a shell-shocked boy in tow, they reach the village of Colognora. Orders via radio tell them to capture a German soldier for questioning about a counteroffensive. In the village, a beautiful woman, partisans that include a traitor and a local legend, the boy, and the story of a recent massacre connect to the postal worker's anguish forty years later. And the miracle? Written by
"Miracle at St. Anna" brings up a very interesting point about black soldiers during World War 2, primarily that they were actually there. Sure, Spike Lee wrongly and probably strategically went after Clint Eastwood for not depicting as many black soldiers at Iwo Jima in his two films, but that whole controversy led me to discover things I had not originally thought of about segregated units. And isn't encouraging people to think about race exactly what Spike is all about? Now he's directing "St. Anna" from a screenplay from James McBride (who also wrote the novel), the first movie I recall that focuses on an all black unit during the war. I love hearing stories about a director who puts his actors through a grueling, depressingly miserable boot camp before filming. I think it shows a lot of heart from everybody involved. It also sounds like it worked to their benefit. Advanced word has it that this movie is masterful and destined for some award recognition and after "Inside Man", Lee is already flying high. But you always wonder with Spike. Are you going to get a provocative flick like "The 25th Hour" or are you going to get something long and rambling that doesn't really go anywhere like "She Hate Me?" So can this movie get the audience and the awards, or will it fail on both accounts?
Spike Lee's film has gone from powerful Oscar contender to merciless dud in the course of 2 short days. There is nearly nothing to latch on to in this movie and yet it's jammed full of three hours worth of random material. The bloody battles are there, complete with bullets and explosions flying through the air and limbs being torn from bodies. The racism and bigotry of white America towards black America is alive and well, including one scene where a diner serves German soldiers but refuses to serve coloreds. We get many side characters including a German traitor and a group of Italian revolutionaries. There's a cute sub-plot about the relationship between Private Sam Train and an Italian boy and another subplot where a love triangle arises between Bishop, Stamps, and Renata. And then there is the folklore stuff about "The Sleeping Man." But what's the point of all this? I started thinking about the significance of saving one man or the significance of one picture defining an entire war and how those films by Spielberg and Eastwood (you know which ones I'm talking about) managed to engage us and then I started thinking about this film. Out of all that's happening in Italy, what exactly is it that we're supposed to hold on to here. What makes these soldiers and their story special other than them being black? It all just feels like melodramatic filler to me.
It also doesn't help that the characters seem like types instead of real personalities. Most don't come through as memorable or terribly compelling and you really have to blame the script for giving them such bland characterizations. There's the guy that Derek Luke plays, filled with honor even though he knows America still will not accept him. The guy Michael Ealy plays, a suave but selfish ladies man. And the wide-eyed innocent giant that Omar Benson Miller plays. These actors do what they can with one-dimensional roles but the characters and scenes they're given never allow them to show any range past the very short character descriptions they're given. Laz Alonso is really the only one out of the four who gets to show any real emotional depth, and that's only because of the beginning and ending of the film take place in 1984 and there seems to be a much more exciting and rich opportunity for drama in those few scenes than in any of the two hours spent in the Italian countryside.
And another thing I wondered about this movie was whether it was really trying to be a true to life account of heroism during the war or if it was some kind of over-produced WW2 action film. There were times when I really thought Lee was making a war film reminiscent of "Indiana Jones." One scene that keeps nagging at me is the introduction of a Nazi general, complete with over-the-top ominous score to announce him by composer Terence Blanchard. As the movie gets more soap operatic with betrayals and hidden secrets, this only made that feeling grow more and more. I also didn't care for the movie trying to be funny at certain points, feeling that those moments disrupted the tone entirely.
"Miracle at St. Anna" disappointed me tremendously. I was expecting something along the lines of "Glory" but what I got was something overblown with material and execution but still so short on actual depth or emotional impact. It's not all Spikes fault. A lot of it also has to be laid at the feet of screenwriter James McBride, who really should have showed some restraint when it came to adapting his novel cause 3 hours of this is too much. When you're going to make something that long, it's got to be air-tight (ex. "The Dark Knight) but unfortunately this movie just doesn't hold together at all. So if you're keeping score. Get the red marker out, cross this off your awards list cause its done.
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