Miracle at St. Anna **1/2
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by James McBride, based on his novel
Derek Luke as 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps
Michael Ealy as Sergeant Bishop Cummings
Laz Alonso as Corporal Hector Negron
Omar Benson Miller as Private First Class Sam Train
Pierfrancesco Favino as Pepi "The Great Butterfly" Grotta
Valentina Cervi as Renata
Matteo Sciabordi as Angelo Torancelli
John Turturro as Detective Antonio Ricci
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tim Boyle
Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity.
"Miracle at St. Anna" is a prime example of when the quest for revenge by the film maker can get in the way of the final product. Film fans will have certainly read about the angry words that Spike Lee made about Clint Eastwood, claiming that his award winning Iwo Jima films from 2006-"Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima"-did not depict black soldiers in any way, despite the fact that they were around during the war. I personally felt this was Lee was making something out of nothing, or maybe he was just trying to score some free promotion for this film. And he claimed that this film was in response, and was made to pay tribute to the black soldiers.
And indeed it is. From the very beginning Lee decides to throw this type of message down our throats. The film starts off in the 80's, where we see an old black soldier watching a movie on television-a war film with John Wayne. But we don't see any black soldiers in the clip we see, instead showing the soldier in anger saying how "we played a part to!" We then see the old man go to work at a post office, where he then shoots one of the customers. When the police go to investigate in his apartment they find a marble statue head, that an appraiser claims is worth millions of dollars. Through flashbacks we hear the old man's story. During World War II, four soldiers-Aubrey Stamps, Bishop Cummings, Hector Negron, and Sam Train-get sidetracked during a long battle, and find themselves in a Tuscany village. While their commanders try to locate them, each one of them gets involved with something happening in the village. Stamps and Bishop begin to fight over Renata, a beautiful English speaking Italian woman in the village, who lives with her father Peppi. But the real meat of the story comes from Sam Train, who ends up befriending a young Italian boy named Angelo, who continues to take to an imaginary friend named Auturo. The four soldiers remain in the village hoping to be found, while the Nazi's continue in pursuit.
"Miracle at St. Anna" is a good film that is somewhat trapped inside the bowels of a very long and problematic one. For example, the presnet day bookends attempt to add a bit of mystery, but no tension arises from this. During the final battle scene the marble statue head passes from hand to hand as the viewer tries to determine who is the survivor of the incident, but other than that I can't see the need for these added scenes. Once we get into the war, Lee does a decent job of storytelling, and there are tense and effective moments throughout. One such moment is as the soldiers make their way across the fields, while a seductive Nazi woman taunts them on the speakers set up all around. There are a few good performances all around-the three that stand out are Derek Luke, who I have admired since his first role in "Antwone Fisher," Omar Benson Miller who plays Sam, and Matteo Sciabordi who plays the little boy. The scenes between Miller and Sciabordi, although there is an entire language between them, are pitch perfect, and this is the real emotional core of the film. In addition, the climatic battle does have its emotionally draining moments, and it was tough to watch these characters that I invested so much time into meet some of their bloody ends, and so suddenly.
But Lee has their effective and well done moments placed about many long segments of nothing. There are several dead moments while they are in the village, and the love story ends up not creating tension between the characters, but creating boredom for the viewer. And the music by Terrence Blanchard is completely out of place, and often quite overbearing. Some of my favorite musical scores are the ones that fit the material like a glove, and its almost as if their is no music place whatsoever. Here the music is loud, obnoxious, and overly present. As time has gone on, its the good things in "Miracle at St. Anna" that have left a lasting impression in my mind, and the bad aspects have diminished. But that still does not change the fact that the experience during the film is slightly less than perfect.
I think much of this stems from Lee's ego, which is as irratating in his film making as it is in his interviews. Lee's message about the black soldiers is everywhere, and I wish he wouldn't make everything a race issue. I personally think his best film is "25th Hour," which stems away from personal anger of Lee, and through this and powerful performances, it becomes his opus. He's come a long way from "Do the Right Thing," another race driven film that was dramatically effective, but at this point he has become angry and somewhat overbearing. In addition, he certainly does not reserve any screen time for the "white soldiers" considering how angry he got at Clint Eastwood. It's almost hypocritical that his only white soldier is the angry and cruel general. Not to mention the Nazi's. But I am not offended by this, and only bring it up in my argument about how Spike Lee can just be a bit too much at times.
All in all, "Miracle at St. Anna" is a sometimes effective war piece, and an ambitious project for Lee to take on considering he hasn't done a war film as of yet. And although I do not agree with his vision half of the time, I can admire how he manages to stick to it and make the film that he wants to make, which is getting harder and harder in this day of cinema.