Spike Lee's new war film, “Miracle at St. Anna,” is a major disappointment, despite his honorable effort at a revisionist history, paying tribute to the brave African American soldiers who fought in World War II, but have not received the credit they deserve.
The film received its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (in the Special Presentations section), and will be released by Disney on September 26, 2008.
The picture is doubly disappointing as a follow-up to Lee's previous film, Inside Man, a character and star-driven genre film, which nonetheless enabled Lee to stamp it with his own singular vision, resulting in the directors most commercially successful work to date.
Narratively and technically shapeless, Miracle at St. Anna is a sprawling, overlong (160 minutes) epic, which plods along from one episode to another, a film that seems content to cover its wide-reaching thematic territory with no effort to shape it with a distinctive perspective or artistic vision. Lack of energy and lethargic pacing are two attributes that don't usually apply to Lees movies, even the bad ones, but they characterize the new film, almost from the start.
Several months ago, Lee, true to his nature as agent-provocateur, engaged in a debate of harsh words with Clint Eastwood about the lack of black soldiers in the latters war films. However, considering Lee's interest in and passion for the subject, its shocking to realize how unremarkable his new film is, on any level.
The screenplay is written by James McBride, author of the acclaimed 2003 novel of the same name, which is based on childhood stories McBride heard from his uncle about his WWII experience, as well as years of conducting meticulous research.
The story unfolds as one long flashback, with the first scene set in the present, actually in the 1980s. The film opens with what seems like a cold-blooded murder of an innocent man at a New York City post office. The rest of the story tries to explain why it happened, who the players are, and what particular historical events led to the murder.
First and last reel use the format of a mystery. A young, white reporter named Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to investigate the case and in the process discovers a priceless Italian artifact in the suspect's apartment. This artifact, a valuable head statue, leads to the long-forgotten division that fought in WWII.
Most of the saga chronicles the adventures of four African-American soldiers who are members of the U.S. Army as part of the all-black 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers. Stationed in Tuscany, Italy, they find themselves trapped behind enemy lines, separated from their unit, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy.
After the first reel, four characters emerge as the core dramatis persona. Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”) stars as Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Michael Ealy (“Barbershop”) is Sergeant Bishop Cummings, Laz Alonso (“Jarhead”) plays Corporal Hector Negron, and Omar Benson Miller (“8 Mile,” “Transformers”) portrays Sam Train, the “chocolate giant” with a big heart who befriends an Italian boy, Angelo (played by newcomer Matteo Sciabordi).
Unfortunately, though nominally representing cultural diversity, the four soldiers come across as types rather than fully developed, multi-nuanced individuals. Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, the leader, is a well-educated college graduate who has both faith and disappointment in the American system. He's deeply divided as to what is or should be the place of the Negro in American society.
Sergeant Bishop Cummings is almost everything that Stamps is not, a con artist, slick talker and ladies man, who doesn't care about the white man or the black man; the only thing he cares about is himself. Bishop is a happy-go-lucky guy, who does not like to be under any authority. His street smarts and common sense won't let him buy into the war, and he doesn't believe in its prospects. If he's a good soldier, its because he wants to stay alive, not because he believes in the war's mission or in his country's ideology.
Hector Negron, the radio operator, is a reluctant soldier, a Puerto Rican from Harlem who wants nothing to do with any of it. Dark-skinned and part of the black culture, he finds himself assigned with the black soldiers in the war. Good with language, Negron is charged with translating and overcoming the barriers between the Italians and the Americans.
Sam Train is a giant soldier with a gentle and soft heart, a man-child, a big man physically who's still innocent. A simpleton, hes illiterate but not dumb. Deeply religious, he believes in superstitions that country folks subscribe to. Train befriends the young boy Angelo, who is the first white individual he gets to know. Plagued by the boy's traumatic past and language barriers, he finds a unique way to communicate with the orphan through a code of tapping.
Ideologically speaking, the movie deals with various cultural collisions, encounters that force people to confront their personal fears and prejudices and collective stereotypes. In addition to the expected conflicts between blacks and whites, there are tensions between old Italian resident and Italian children, Italians and Americans, Italians and Germans, Italians and Italians of diverse political persuasions (some are fascists, others are partisans, and still others are pro-American).
In its good moments, the film concerns the issue of overcoming barriers–cultural, linguistic, national, and sexual too-and the evolution of relationships between people who would have never met in ordinary life and who understand and help each other against the horror of the war.
To be fair, the film does convey the broader contexts of how strange and difficult those last years of the war were, not only for the Buffalo Soldiers fighting in Italy, but for the Italians and Germans as well. Like other war films, “Miracle at St. Anna” shows how the same war can bring out the good and the bad, the best and worst in human beings.
Sporadically, the picture comes to life, showing what it could have been if greater care and attention were paid in pre-production as well as shooting and post-production. Miracle at St. Anna aims to be more than a war story: Its written as a story about ordinary black citizens reacting to extraordinary stress, while always trying to retain their humanity.
Nonetheless, Lee is trying to do too much. Part murder mystery, part combat film, part history lesson about the different political factions in the war-torn Italian society circa 1944, part a horrifying Holocaust tale, part sentimental interracial melodrama about the loving bond of a black soldier and an Italian boy, Miracle at St. Anna is not satisfying on any of these levels. Indeed, due to the fragmented, episodic, and convoluted nature of the narrative, the subplots remain subplots, which could function as small movies in their own right, as there is no unifying perspective to integrate them into a more coherent picture.
For the Record
The 92nd Infantry Division consisted of 15,000 African-American men, dubbed Buffalo Soldiers, who served in Italy during World War II from August 1944 to November 1945. They weren't the first African Americans to fight for the U.S.; the term Buffalo Soldier, initiated by Native Americans, dates back to the Mexican War.
2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps – Derek Luke
Sergeant Bishop Cummings – Michael Ealy
Corp. Hector Negron – Laz Alonso
Private First Class Sam Train – Omar Benson Miller
Peppi “the Great Butterfly” Grotta Pierfrancesco Favino
Renata – Valentina Cerri
Angelo Torancelli — the Boy – Matteo Sciabordi
Tim Boyle – Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Detective “Tony” Ricci – John Turturro
Enrico – John Leguizamo
Zana Wilder – Kerry Washington
Colonel Driscoll – D.B. Sweeney
General Ned Almond – Robert John Burke
Huggs – Omari Antonutti
Ludovico – Omero Antonutti
Rodolfo – Sergio Albelli
Axis Sally – Alexandra Maria Lara
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation, in association with On My Own, Produzioni Cinematografiche and RAI Cinema, of a 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production.
Produced by Roberto Cicutto, Luigi Musini, Spike Lee.
Executive producers: Marco Valerio Pugini, Jon Kilik.
Directed by Spike Lee.
Screenplay, James McBride, based on his novel.
Camera: Matthew Libatique.
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown.
Music: Terence Blanchard.
Production designer: Tonino Zera.
Art direction supervisor: Carlo Serafini.
Art director: Donato Tieppo.
Set decorator: Cristina Ohori.
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli.
Sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS): Maurizio Argentieri; supervising sound editors, Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty; re-recording mixer, Tom Fleischman.
Visual effects supervisor: Grady Cofer.
Visual effects: Industrial Light & Magic.
Special effects supervisor: Daniel Dominic Acon.
Assistant director: Mike Ellis.
Second unit director-camera: Ernest Dickerson.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 160 Minutes.