Aside from Inside Man, Spike Lee is a filmmaker whose films I have very little experience with. As is the case with so many other filmmakers, this is not out of any intention of mine to avoid them but more a case of finding the time amongst all of the other films, shows, and music that I am into. That said, I did enjoy Inside Man and was definitely looking forward to Miracle at St. Anna. The setup seemed to be intriguing as it focuses on the Buffalo Soldiers of World War II, whom I do not recall seeing many films about. Actually, I cannot recall any.
The story begins in 1983. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) is in his apartment in New York City watching a John Wayne war film. As he watches the film, he says, "We fought that war, too." The scene shifts to the post office, where Hector works the counter selling stamps. A man comes to the desk, asks for a stamp, and is promptly shot by Hector, point blank. Hector is arrested, and during the search of his apartment the long-missing head of an Italian statue is found in the back of his closet. Reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) questions Negron about why he shot the man and why the head was in his closet. Negron responds saying that he is the only one who knows.
Flash back to the mid-1940s. The war is raging on and the Buffalo Soldiers, 92nd Regiment, are making a move on the German lines. During a particularly brutal encounter, Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) calls for artillery backup. However, the white commanding officer cannot believe that black soldiers could have crossed the river line, and the strike never comes.
Once the smoke clears, we are left with four survivors trapped behind enemy lines: Stamps, Negron, Bishop Cummings (Micheal Ealy), and Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). They take refuge in a small hillside village, along with an injured boy named Angelo (Matteo Schiabordi). Angelo forms a bond with Train that crosses the language barrier and helps inject the story with its heart.
Anyway, the quartet of soldiers must find a way to survive alongside the Italian villagers. They are surrounded on all sides by German soldiers and have been charged with capturing one for questioning by their superiors.
This story alone sounds like it would make for a strong film that would serve to reinforce the heroism of black soldiers during the war. I would have been happy with that. Instead, the film has layer upon layer of subplots and side stories that just serve to dilute the impact of the film.
In addition to the fight for survival of the central four, there is also the relationship between Train and Angelo (who also talks to an invisible friend) and the love triangle between Bishop, Stamps, and Renata, the strong-willed Italian woman who helps them in the town. If that isn't enough, there is the arrival of Peppi and Rodolfo, Italian partisans fighting against the Axis powers.
All of the stories are woven together in a way to help reinforce the murder mystery in 1983. I spent a good portion of the film attempting to figure out just how these pieces were going to fit together — just what was the big picture? Eventually, the pieces all come together revealing a touching, if not completely involving picture, with a tearjerker of a final scene that could be seen from a mile away.
Taking a look at the film from a distance, it looks like a good one: powerful story, social statement, undercurrent of heartfelt goodwill, not to mention the mystery. However, upon closer inspection, you will find a film that aspires to much more than it actually accomplishes.
The opening and closing sequences were not necessary to the film. They only served to mislead the audience. I was hoping to find some truly deep, decades-spanning mystery with a strong focus on the statue head and the shooting. I am not quite sure what the purpose of these bookending sequences was. On top of that, some of the sequences were so horribly overdone that I felt like it was about to veer into comedy.
As soon as the story begins, it is forgotten that we began with a single man's perspective. Logically, I would assume that everything we are told about the events during the war would be from Hector Negron's perspective, but that simply is not the case. This may seem like nitpicking, but it just annoyed me. There is the use of flashbacks within what is supposed to be a flashback by characters other than the presumed narrator. Then, upon return to the present of 1983, we are thrust right into the trial. I do not feel there is a satisfactory resolution to the murder mystery and the statue. These elements, which seemed so important at the start, are relegated to the sidelines by the time the climax is reached.
I really wanted to like this film more than I did. For what it's worth, there are some very good scenes. The battle sequences are powerful and well staged, and there is a very good flashback to when the four are still stateside and the rude welcome they get at an ice cream shop, where POWs are being treated as well as citizens. Then there is Omar Benson Miller; his performance as the childlike Train is great. He was a character I wanted to spend the most time with.
Bottom line. This is an admirable effort that suffers from having way too much plot crammed in. Shave off the opening and closing and focus the central portion of the film and this could have been great. It is well worth seeing, just keep your expectations in check.