Spike Lee is an audacious, intelligent filmmaker. His hard-nosed nature is the stuff of legends, and audiences can always count on him to deliver his movies his way. With 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, Lee takes his time with a war epic and the results are mystifying and convoluted. His storytelling abilities feel forced into a box, as the manifold avenues of this saga really deserve better treatment on the whole. Perhaps a miniseries format would have accomplished a more scrupulous telling.
Miracle at St. Anna focuses on the diverse sides of the Second World War. The focal point is a quartet of black soldiers in the 92nd Infantry Division. Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and Private First Class Samuel Train (Omar Benson Miller) are stationed in Tuscany and soon find themselves trapped behind enemy lines after Train risks his life to save an Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi). Lee follows the foursome as they spend time in a Tuscan village.
The movie is bookended with an interesting chronicle. We are introduced to Hector in the 1980s as he is living a normal but friendless life. He is indignant towards the lack of black soldiers in a John Wayne war movie (perhaps a nod to Lee’s conflict with Clint Eastwood) and heads to work at a post office selling stamps. A patron approaches and Hector recognizes him. He shoots the man. Later, Hector is interviewed by a reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and we are introduced to the aforementioned Buffalo Soldiers. An antique bust remains a an integral link to the past.
Lee’s motion picture is difficult. It is often compelling, offering scenes with bitter honesty. Unfortunately, others feel as though they belong in a different movie, as the director’s attempts to tell multiple stories crowds out the film’s potential for impact. We’re left with a composition that feels jumbled and long-winded, leading Lee to present a conclusion that is tacky and hurried despite the movie’s 160-minute runtime.
Miracle at St. Anna is based on the novel of the same name by James McBride. The stories are gripping and the fundamental themes are well worth examining in detail. Regrettably, I’m not sure Spike Lee did that with this production. While he does touch on moments of antipathy, self-indulgence, retribution, heartbreak, expectation, and even sexuality, it simply feels too perfunctory. Lee’s attention is far too divided for Miracle at St. Anna to focus strongly on much of anything.
The use of flashbacks really impacts the ability to focus. While the entire story is told with this tactic, there are also a few flashbacks within the flashback that sidetrack from the overall arc. While a trip to Louisiana allows us to momentarily experience the intolerance the 92nd felt, it does little for story progression and could have been told in a crisper and more focused manner. The other flashback is potent, but feels tacked on and diverts from the flow of the film.
The performances are quite good. Michael Ealy, who some might remember from the Showtime series Sleeper Cell, is the standout as Bishop. Alonso does a splendid job as the core of the piece, Hector, and his character adds an appealing dynamic. As love interest Renata, Italian actress Valentina Cervi provides the perfect quantity of fiery sexual tension.
Lee’s work with the battle sequences is good, but his affinity for music-driven melodrama dampens the bulk of the movie. Scenes feel mislaid or out of order, as though the film’s editor was snoozing on the job. While Lee tries to cover various perspectives in regards to the war, he ends up crowding the movie with scenes and flashbacks that baffle and fail to enchant.
Sadly, Miracle at St. Anna is an awfully average effort from a generally dependable director. It is one of his weakest motion pictures in years and would have been better served as a miniseries, which is a system Lee excels at. As a motion picture, it feels congested and exceedingly pushy.
The standard DVD features the motion picture in widescreen (2.35:1) presentation enhanced for 16×9 televisions and Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound. There are no bonus features.