I like Spike. Spike Lee has been putting out bold and original films for more than twenty years now. Lee is a filmmaker who doesn’t pull any punches, when he wants to make a point he’ll go all out. This means that he can make some really biting satire, but it also means he can go too far occasionally. It also means that some of his movies can get overloaded with interesting ideas and become messy polemics rather than well thought out debates. His newest film, Miracle at St. Anna, looks at the African American experience during World War 2.
The film begins in a post office in 1989. A man walks up to an African American teller and tries to buy some stamps, a sudden look of recognition falls on the tellers face, suddenly the teller pulls out a Luger and shoots the customer dead. The teller is arrested and when the police search his house they find an ancient Italian artifact that disappeared during the Second World War. The film then flashes back to the Italian campaign of the war. During the flashback the film follows the 92nd infantry Buffalo Soldier division, particularly four enlisted men. The teller, it turns out, was named Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the highest ranking of the four. Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) are both in a state of constant conflict over their differeing view of the way African Americans are treated by the military and white society in general. Finally, there’s Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a large and not overly bright GI who befriends a young Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) that he finds abandoned in a house. The four find themselves being the only survivors of a tense gunfight. Broken from the main force they take refuge in a small Tuscan village where they wait for orders.
The film’s trailer focuses a lot on the statue head, and makes the film look like some kind of war-time artifact heist film, but this is misleading. The statue head is actually already in the soldier’s possession when the flashback begins and it ultimately has little to do with the story outside of the framing story. I can understand why they did this though, because the real center of the story is a much harder sell.
Lee clearly wants to set the record straight about the role African Americans played in the war, that’s a noble sentiment, but I wish he had found a better project to make this point through. With a white cast leading this movie and a more anonymous director, the film would have seemed like pretty bland and derivative war movie trying to ride the wave of post-Saving Private Ryan war fare. The racial elements are what set the movie apart, and they’re probably the most interesting parts of the film. The way these combat troops are treated by their commanding officers and by civilians in a diner back on base is sad and disturbing, especially in a modern “support the troops” environment. There’s also a really interesting schism between the Ealy and Alonso characters.
What doesn’t work as well is the story surrounding the Miller character and the Italian orphan he befriends. In fact this sub-plot is so achingly schmaltzy, saccharine and mis-placed that it pretty much torpedoes the whole movie. Miller’s character, Sam Train, is a large and seemingly mentally challenged character. It almost feels like John Coffey, Michael Clark Duncan’s character from The Green Mile, somehow wandered onto a World War 2 battlefield. The Frank Darabont comparisons don’t stop there either; there’s a very awkward use of magical realism throughout this sub-plot that just seems really strange in a movie about a war, particularly in a campaign of the war that audiences are so used to seeing through a neo-realist lens.
One of the prevailing complaints about the film through its festival run was that it ran too long at 160 minutes. I’ve never been one to cry wolf about running times, I think there’s a disturbing level of attention deficit disorder running through critical circles and people are way too quick to jump on running time as a problem. That said, even I could see where these criticisms were coming from. I was never really bored or impatient about the film’s running time, but there was a lot of superfluous material here. The framing story is mostly a waste, and it includes a really odd cameo by John Leguizamo. Extended sub-plots about the Italian partisans seemed like a distraction, too much time was spent on the Italians in general when the movie should have been focusing on the four African American characters were in the theater to see. Even the Nazi officers are given a lot of screen time that doesn’t amount to much in the overall story. In all this mess of sub-plots the movie really loses track of the Derek Luke character, which is odd considering all the time the framing story spends trying to make this his story. The Laz Alonso character was a lot more interesting to me, and he was given a lot more to do through the whole movie.
On a visual level, the film works quite well. Like most films about World War 2 made since 1998, the film owes a pretty big debt to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s film ushered in a new level of authenticity in the genre of World War 2 films and the genre has been all the better for it. This isn’t a wholesale lift though, unlike Spielberg and Eastwood’s films Lee doesn’t de-saturate the look of his war film, and this was probably the right choice given the film’s Italian setting and more fanciful tone.
In general, Lee plays this one straighter than he has with any movie since Malcolm X. No one talks directly to the camera, there’s no one sliding on wheels with a steady cam, and no strange tricks with the film’s horizontal hold. All those games worked fine in their respective movies, but Lee wisely didn’t see them as fitting in with the tone of a war movie. This really seems less like a Spike Lee Joint than any movie of his since maybe Clockers. In many ways it feels like he was trying to hold back his auteurist traits in order to get his message to as wide an audience as possible.
If nothing else, Miracle at St. Anna is very well intentioned. I think a straightforward story about three of these four soldiers preparing for a battle in an Italian town and relating with the locals would have made a fine story. If the film hadn’t been bogged down in the framing story and the sappy story about Sam Train and the Orphan it might have worked. As it stands though, the film really just doesn’t work, it’s too uneven, too convoluted, and lacks the grit it needed to really sell the plight of its characters. The film is almost as messy and unfocused as a Spike Lee Joint like Bamboozled or She Hate Me, except without the same energy or satire that made those movies sort of fun to watch in spite of themselves. Chalk this one up as noble failure.
** out of Four