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DVD Review: Miracle at St. Anna

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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.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Andrew M.

    Unfortunately, Spike Lee needs to converse with someone that has a historical wartime background before embarking upon such an ambitious – and clearly inaccurate endeavor. Basic oversight’s such as the observance of the Blackout and conversation cannot be ignored. Spike Lee cannot be allowed rewrite history just because it “appears so” in a Hollywood movie. While “Buffalo Soldiers” were often confronted with racial prejudice from other members of the U.S. Army, the confrontations outlined in the movie were painfully overstretched – showing Spike Lee’s anger and racism to be the enemy – and not the German forces they were supposed to be fighting. “The best war movie since Saving Private Ryan”? Nope. Not even. You have a long way to go before claiming that accolade. RT gave this 33% – I personally wouldn’t be so kind.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Andrew, I think Lee’s whole point was to have his protagonists struggle with doubt as to why they were fighting the Germans when they’d been treated far worse by their own side.

    The one bit that I did think stretched credibility in that regard was the scene in which the Buffalo Soldiers were refused service in a Southern ice cream parlor while on leave. After what they did next, I severely doubt that the quartet would have even been in Italy. They would have been cooling their heels in a military prison for the duration of the war and possibly a lot longer.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Andrew,

    As you might be able to tell from even the most cursory reading of my review, I didn’t like the film.

    But let’s bear in mind that this motion picture is based on McBride’s book, primarily. Films “rewrite” history all the time; it’s called artistic license and it is well within the rights of someone telling a fictional story to do just that with a framework of history. Lee is not shooting a documentary, so his responsibility is primarily as a storyteller not as a historical reference point. Anyone using Hollywood motion pictures as reference points to history would be foolish. I think that goes without saying.

    Also, I’m not really sure who you’re quoting when you say “The best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.” That isn’t my quotation, although I suppose it’s more of a generalized statement from your soapbox. I agree with you, it isn’t the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan at all. And Saving Private Ryan, frankly, is worthwhile only for the first segment. After that, it completely comes undone.

    Spielberg, by the way, rewrites history as well.