You gotta give Spike Lee this much: he's never lacked ambition. His latest film, Miracle at St. Anna, is genre-tagged on imdb as "action/crime/drama/thriller/war," and I think they left out romance, too; in its expansive 160 minute running time, he not only tries to make the definitive African-American WWII movie, but also an 80s crime story and a gentle riff on Italian neorealist cinema. It often works, but mostly in spite of itself--he lets his plate get way too full, though there are still some tasty items on it.
The story begins in 1984, focused on Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, in a marvelous two-part performance), an elderly veteran of "The Great War." We see him in his tiny New York apartment; he watches an old John Wayne movie and mutters (in the first of the movie's too-on-the-nose moments) "We fought in that war too, Duke." The next day, while working at the post office, he recognizes a man across the counter, pulls out his pistol, and shoots him in cold blood. Police go to search his apartment and find an ancient artifact on the floor of his closet. A hungry young reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) writes up the mystery, and goes to interview Negron.
That's quite a bit of set-up; we don't get to the war movie (Italy, 1944) until the fifteen-minute mark. There's some good acting and intriguing writing in this prologue, and the corresponding epilogue that bookends the film, but it is ultimately unnecessary--a visit from our old friend, the Unnecessary Wraparound (see A League of Their Own, Fried Green Tomatoes, and the most obvious influence on this film, Saving Private Ryan).
Once it gets to the meat of the story, though, it picks up some steam. The first battle sequence is exhausting, as the all-black platoon of Buffalo Soldiers dodges enemy fire, friendly fire and the loudspeaker propaganda of "Axis Sally." Four soldiers make it through that bloodbath and find themselves behind Nazi lines, hiding out in a tiny, quiet Italian village.
There are a number of memorable, even heartbreaking, scenes here. Much of the story hinges on the strange but touching friendship of a young Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and Private Train (Omar Benson Miller, a terrific actor whom I hope we'll see much more of); it is a relationship that risks precociousness, but never crosses that line. The sequence that gives the film its title is truly stunning, one of the most shocking recreations of the cruelty of war this side of Schindler's List.
But it is also an incredibly indulgent picture. Like so many things in this life, it's way too long and meanders entirely too much; I'm still not sure what the point was of John Leguizamo's scene, and the love triangle could have gone easily and to great effect. The structure is, to say the very least, convoluted--I'm pretty sure that, at one point, I was watching a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. And sure, it decries old war movies while trafficking in many of their expected character types and stock situations.
Yet there is much to admire, particularly the Italian neo-realism vibe of the village sequences, the down-and-dirty cinematography by the great Matthew Libatique, and the sterling performances. And Lee, who loves to toss the dice on a risky ending (He Got Game), finds exactly the right note for this one--I loved the heart wrenching, subtle turn to magic realism at the conclusion of the final battle. In those moments, Miracle at St. Anna plays, a powerful, thoughtful telling of a story not often told. The bad news is that those moments are often too far between.
Director of photography Libatique (who shot Iron Man, The Fountain, and Lee's Inside Man, among many others) made the intriguing stylistic decision to shoot only the 1980s bookend sequences in 35mm film, using Super 16 cameras to shoot the 1944 scenes. This allowed greater maneuverability and the ability to shoot in lower light; it also gives those scenes a distinctive, grainier look. In fact, the resultant 2.35:1 image may be grainier than some viewers may like, but the transfer accurately recreates the experience of seeing the film in theatres (with no other issues of note).
The 5.1 audio track is good, if a little lacking. The opening battle sequence sounds terrific, with excellent use of directional sound (spreading the loud speaker propaganda, artillery fire, and cannon blasts), as does the climactic battle. However, the rear surround channels are used primarily for music rather than battle sound effects, so the mix isn't quite as immersive as it could have been. That complaint aside, Terrence Blanchard's score is crisp and dialogue is clear and well-modulated. The disc also includes French and Spanish soundtracks and subtitles, along with an English subtitle option.
Not a one, which is a surprise, since Lee can usually be counted on for at least an audio commentary. Perhaps the poor box office reception of Miracle soured Buena Vista's interest in supplementing the film, which is a shame.
Miracle at St. Anna has a number of problems (its length, its lack of focus, its occasional lack of subtlety), but there is still much in it to recommend. It tells an under-reported story, the performances are unquestionably strong, and Lee's terrific eye seldom falters. It is a deeply flawed picture, but what it does, it does very, very well. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.