Miracle at St. Anna

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/26/08 00:00:00

"The Thin Black Plotline"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Miracle at St. Anna” may not be the worst film that controversial director Spike Lee has ever made (that title is still jointly held by “Girl 6” and “She Hate Me,” arguably two of the worst films ever made by a world-renowned filmmaker) but it may well be the single most disappointing entry in his long and varied filmography. For years, he has been talking about making a movie that would shine a light on the African-American soldiers whose participation in World War II have often gone overlooked in both the historical record and in the literally whitewashed depictions presented by Hollywood. Unfortunately, instead of presenting the kind of hard-hitting and eye-opening historical drama that might have been expected or hoped for, he has instead given us a bizarre narrative mishmash that tries to simultaneously juggle any number of story points (including a murder mystery, religious miracles, various forms of treachery and a romantic triangle) without demonstrating any noticeable flair for any of them. The result is a mess of clashing tones, jumbled story points and mishandled moments that takes what could have been either an impressive straightforward war movie or a fascinating revisionist take on the genre and transforms it into a meandering and overlong mess that steps into a dramatic quagmire early on that it never manages to emerge from during its nearly three-hour length.

The film kicks off in 1983 with war veteran Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) sitting in his modest apartment and scoffing at a scene in “The Longest Day” in which John Wayne is preparing to lead his lily-white troops into battle. The next day, he goes to his job at the post office and when an old Italian man comes up to his window to purchase some stamps, Hector shoots him in the head with a Lugar that he just happens to keep with him. That violent act is mysterious enough--neither the perpetrator nor the victim seem to have any connection with each other--but things grown even more puzzling when a search of Hector’s apartment turns up a priceless statue that was part of a bridge in Florence that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944. An ambitious young news reporter (Joseph Gordon Levitt) goes to interview Hector, who hasn’t spoken or eaten since his arrest, in order to get to the bottom of the twin mysteries involving the murder and the statue. Hector’s only response is to tearfully mutter “I know who the sleeping man is,” an utterance that does little for the reporter’s story but which has the ability to launch us into a feature-length flashback that will presumably explain everything.

We land in 1944 behind enemy lines in Italy as several platoons of black American soldiers are making their way across a river in Tuscany and who wind up largely getting cut to ribbons by both the massing Nazi troops (who have been blasting commentary from the German version of Tokyo Rose reminding them that they are fighting for a country that refuses to treat them as equals) and their fellow troops (a racist commanding officer refuses to believe that some of them made it across the river and orders the shelling of the area where they are calling for help from). At the end of this extended sequence of carnage, only four soldiers are left--Hector, quiet and efficient leader Stamps (Derek Luke), smooth-talking horndog Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Train (Omar Benson Miller), a gentle giant who attributes his astonishing luck in the field to the statue from a destroyed bridge that he is carrying around that he is convinced has miraculous powers. While trying to find their way to safety, Train stumbles upon an injured Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Scisbordi) in a bombed-out barn and takes it upon himself to carry him along for the ride. Eventually, they land in a picturesque village that is slowly being surrounded by Nazis and while they wait and wait and wait for reinforcements to come and get them out, they become involved with a beautiful local woman (Valentina Cervi) who catches the eyes of both Stamps and Bishop, a group of local Partisans who are on the run from a sadistic Nazi commandant and an AWOL German soldier who is carrying both a shocking secret and a mysterious connection to Angelo, whose ability to provide good luck to his new caretakers borders on the miraculous.

There are many mysteries on hand in “Miracle at St. Anna”--Why did Hector gun down the man in the post office? Why is everyone looking for the AWOL Nazi and what is his connection with Arturo? Does Arturo and/or the statue genuinely have magical powers? Who is the traitor in the village who puts everyone at risk?--but the biggest mystery of all is how anyone could have deemed the rambling and seriously undisciplined screenplay by James Baldwin , who also wrote the novel that the film is based on, ready for filming. There are so many things that could have been jettisoned here (the awkward framing device, numerous subplots that go nowhere and minor characters who add nothing to the proceedings, especially the one played by John Leguizamo that single-handedly redefines the word “superfluous“) that at times it feels as if Lee accidentally agreed to shoot Baldwin’s first draft before he went back and pruned things down to a more manageable length. At other times, the writing is just plain klutzy--having established that the entire story is a flashback from Hector’s perspective, the story then goes on to show us any number of scenes that he could not have possibly seen or known about. The characters are surprisingly thin and one-note for a movie that follows hem around for nearly three hours--each one is given a single basic trait to play and they are never allowed to go any deeper.

And while it is clear that Baldwin and Lee wanted to use this story as a way of examining the racism that African-American soldiers suffered even as they were fighting for their country, they lay it on so thick here that even those who are 100% in their camp are likely to feel a little bit insulted by the way it is repeatedly underlined. Remember that sequence I mentioned earlier in which Axis Sally broadcasts her propaganda trying to convince the soldiers to abandon the country that hates them (which goes on so long that even the Nazis begin shouting for her to shut up) while they are being bombed by their own troops because the commander thinks they are lying about their position? Turns out that is actually one of the more subtle examinations of this particular theme that the film has in store. Later on, example, we get a sequence in which two of the soldiers talk about how they are being treated in the small town that they are holed up in and one goes so far as to remark “I ain’t a nigger around here.” And if that was still a little too subtle for you, we are also treated to a long flashback of the soldiers being mistreated by the redneck owner of an ice cream shop near their military base who has no problem serving some German prisoners but who orders our heroes out with the business end of a shotgun. Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, this sequence ends with those soldiers staring directly at the camera for a long time before moving, presumably to implicate us all for the crimes of a badly written scene.

Although Spike Lee can be a maddeningly uneven talent at times, when you watch one of his films, there is usually no doubt that you are watching a Spike Lee film thanks to the energy and visual audacity that he pumps into even his lames efforts. Therefore, it is a bit shocking to sit through every ponderous moment of “Miracle at St. Anna” and discover virtually no trace of his distinctive mark at all--for all intents and purposes, he has basically given us a Norman Jewison film instead of a Spike Lee film. The story just plods along and pretty much grinds to a stop once they enter the village. The visual style is remarkably uninteresting--there is plenty of run-of-the-mill visual sweep but nothing that really grabs the eye in the manner of such stylish works as “Do the Right Thing” or “Malcolm X.”--and the bombastic score from Terrence Blanchard is about as subtle and restrained as the screenwriting. As for the battle sequences, it soon becomes apparent that Lee is one of those filmmakers who believes that the only way to convey the horrors of war is to give us as many close-ups of gory violence as the “R” rating will hold--we get gallons of blood, dozens of severed body parts and more dead Italian children than you might find in a Lucio Fulci retrospective but they are presented so indifferently that they have almost no impact. However, the most disappointing thing about “Miracle at St. Anna” is that you never get the sense of urgency that this was a story that Lee simply had to tell--quite frankly, it often feels as if the only reason that he took upon this particular project is because Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood got to make their big WW II epics and by golly, he wanted the chance to do one as well. Unfortunately, in doing so, he would up making a film just as stodgy and one-dimensional as the ones that Spielberg and Eastwood did.

“Miracle at St. Anna” is both a bad movie, for the very reasons that I have gone into above, and an enormously frustrating one because the notion of making a film about African-American soldiers during this time period is such a potentially interesting topic that it sad to see it squandered on a film that takes what could have been an audacious and entertaining 90-minute B-movie in the hands of someone like Sam Fuller back in the 1950’s and stretches it out to nearly twice that length without ever justifying the added screen time. With any luck, perhaps Spike Lee can go back to the drawing board and use the subject for a documentary that will do for this subject what his haunting films “4 Little Girls” and “When the Levees Broke” did for {} and the Hurricane Katrina saga. If he could make a film only half as powerful as those, it would most likely be a searing and eye-opening look at a piece of history that has been forgotten for too long and a much greater tribute to those who served than this melodramatic claptrap.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.