by Mel Valentin
Directed by Spike Lee ("When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," "Inside Man," "Summer of Sam," "Clockers," "Crooklyn," "Malcolm X," "Jungle Fever," "Mo' Better Blues," "Do the Right Thing," "She's Gotta Have It") and adapted by James McBride ("The Color of Water") from his novel, "Miracle at St. Anna" is a paean to the little-known, little-celebrated African American soldiers who served in the United States Army during World War II as part of the mostly African-American 92nd Infantry Division. It’s also a riposte to the celebration of America’s “Greatest Generation” in recent films, from Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan" to Clint Eastwood’s "Flags of our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." Unfortunately, "Miracle at St. Anna" fails to live up to Lee’s aspirations or our expectations. It’s a sprawling, unfocused, sentimental, manipulative semi-epic.Miracle at St. Anna opens in 1983, as a postal worker near retirement, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), shoots and kills a man inside a post office. The detective, Antonio 'Tony' Ricci (John Turturro), assigned to the case, allows a newbie reporter with The Daily News, Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to tag along with other detectives as they search through Negron’s apartment for clues to the murder. There, they find what appears to be a stolen artifact. They get the Renaissance-era marble head appraised by a local professor, who immediately recognizes it as an artifact missing since WWII. It’s also worth $5 million dollars on the black market. Seeing the potential for a front-page story, Boyle interviews Negron at the city’s psychiatric hospital. With the exception of a cryptic comment, Negron, however, refuses to answer Boyle’s questions.
"No miracles here. Just another sub-par effort from Spike Lee."
Miracle at St. Anna’s then flashes back to 1944 Italy as members of the 92nd Infantry Division, including Negron, 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), attempt to cross the Serchio River and take a fortified German emplacement. Negron, Stamps, Cummings, and Train end up trapped on the wrong side of the river. Train meets and befriends a young Italian boy, Angelo Torancelli (Matteo Sciabordi), traumatized by a recent massacre in a nearby village. The four men and the boy find their way to a small village where, over the course of several days, they befriend the villagers, including Renata (Valentina Cervi), a beautiful Italian woman, and her father, Ludovico (Omero Antonutti). They also meet a local partisan, Peppi 'The Great Butterfly' Grotta (Pierfrancesco Favino).
Miracle at St. Anna’s is an object lesson in how not to adapt a sprawling, episodic novel with shifting points of view. At 160 minutes, Miracle at St. Anna is 40 minutes too long. Lee and McBride spend too much time on secondary characters, including flashbacks within flashbacks that leave the four central characters offscreen for too long. Lee and McBride also spend too much time on the relationship between Train, a simple-minded man-mountain who believes that the statue’s head he’s carrying around makes him invisible to the enemy, and Angelo. Their scenes together suggest Lee was channeling one of Spielberg’s worst impulses (i.e., his sentimentality). The romantic triangle that develops between Stamps, Renata, and Bishop is also poorly motivated and, thus, poorly developed, making our interest in its resolution less than it should have been.
Lee’s reputation for turning his characters and films into mouthpieces is evident in another nested flashback, a scene involving the four men’s experiences at an ice scream shop in Louisiana, feels superfluous (because it is). Lee also makes a point of ascribing the failure of the initial operation to a racist Caucasian captain who prefers to remain well behind the line of fire and refuses the input of the African-American soldiers and officers under his command. While Lee wants to remind his audience about the secondary status of African Americans in the 1940s and their mistreatment both in and out of the Army, he simply doesn’t trust his audiences to know enough about the history of racism in America or simply feels the need to manipulate his audience into cheap or cheaply earned sentiment.Even worse, Lee gives in to his worse impulses when he returns "Miracle at St. Anna" to 1983. Having already ended the previous scene with a "deus ex machina," Lee throws caution to the winds and adds another one to the mix, an egregious attempt to “save” a character who doesn’t need to be saved, whose actions, made understandable over the course of the previous two and a half hours, while justifiable, shouldn’t involve an end run around the legal system. Then again, given all the missteps that precede the final scenes set in 1983, one more misstep shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But that’s the Spike Lee we’ve known and, more often than not, appreciated over the last twenty years. If only he’d trust his audiences more and his instinct for sentimentality less, there’d be doubt about Lee’s place among modern filmmakers: in the front rank and not the second one where he currently resides.
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originally posted: 09/26/08 03:14:23