Miracle at St. Anna
Director : Spike Lee
Screenplay : James McBride (based on his novel)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Derek Luke (2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps), Michael Ealy (Sergeant Bishop Cummings), Laz Alonso (Corporal Hector Negron), Omar Benson Miller (Private First Class Sam Train), Pierfrancesco Favino (Peppi “The Great Butterfly” Grotta), Valentina Cervi (Renata), Matteo Sciabordi (Angelo Torancelli), John Turturro (Detective Antonio Ricci), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tim Boyle), John Leguizamo (Enrico), Kerry Washington (Zana Wilder), D.B. Sweeney (Colonel Driscoll), Robert John Burke (General Ned Almond)
In the opening scene of Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, an elderly black man sits in his apartment in Harlem beneath a World War II recruitment poster of Joe Louis in uniform. He is watching John Wayne on television commanding his lily-white platoon to hold an Italian village in The Longest Day (1962), to which he mutters, “We fought for this country, too.” Message sent, message received.
However, righting the underrepresentation of African Americans in Hollywood films about the Great War (the most recent being Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, which led to a very public exchange of words between the two filmmakers) is hardly the only thing Lee is up to, much to the film’s detriment. If Lee has been hampered by one thing in his career, it has been his inability to keep it under two hours (Bamboozled is a 90-minute movie crammed into 135, and even his greatest film Do the Right Thing could have been trimmed by 10 minutes or so). Of course, working with epic historical material only encourages this tendency, and at 160 minutes Miracle at St. Anna becomes something of a chore, even when it’s working.
The main thrust of the story involves four members of the 92nd Infantry Division of the Buffalo Soldiers who become trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany, Italy, and take refuge in an Italian village. Each of the four soldiers is clearly meant to represent a type, but unfortunately they never expand much beyond the most simplistic of divisions: The leader is 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), whose hopes for an integrated, just future get him labeled as an Uncle Tom; Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) is a bitter, sly rabble-rouser who has long since given up on getting along and is instead content to milk life for all it’s worth; Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) is a Puerto Rican interpreter who is the most level-headed of the bunch; and Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) is a gentle giant of a man whose intense religious convictions cause him to believe that a young Italian orphan named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) is a gift from God sent to somehow protect him, even though the child seems mentally scarred, if not disturbed (he has the tendency to talk to a nonexistent entity named Arturo).
Had Lee stayed focused on telling a story about the Buffalo Soldiers and their experiences fighting in Italy, Miracle at St. Anna might have been a genuinely meaningful corrective, a war movie that sets right the experiences of thousands that have heretofore been largely ignored. Unfortunately, as he is wont to do, Lee can’t stay focused on just one major theme, and the film quickly becomes scattered across half a dozen subplots, some of which have little or nothing to do with the Buffalo Soldiers. Thus, we get stories about unrest among the Nazis soldiers who, by 1944, were starving and running low on ammunition; ideological conflict between Italian partisans fighting in the woods and members of the older generation still clinging to fascism because it made Italy “great” again; and a murder-mystery framing device that, while it serves to generate immediate interest, quickly becomes irrelevant. The framing device is also packed with stunt casting in the form of brief appearances by notable actors like John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and John Leguizamo that are needlessly detracting. And, even within the major plot strand involving the black soldiers, there are various threads, including one regarding the romantic competition between Bishop and Stamps over a lusty/saintly Italian woman (Valentina Cervi), that have little dramatic or thematic impact, which only serves to make the film seem bloated as opposed to weighty.
Miracle at St. Anna, which was adapted by James McBride from his own novel, is at its best when Lee gets out of his “epic” mindset and focuses on the characters. A scene in which Stamps laments that he feels more at home in Europe than he does in the United States because he isn’t immediately understood via his skin color is as moving and damning an indictment as I’ve ever heard about the nature of American race relations. But, Lee clearly has magical realism, fable, and historical enormity on the brain, and even though he stuffs the film with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink, his ultimate point is anyone’s guess.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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