More than many filmmakers, Spike Lee's movies all seem to have a distinctive point of view. Spike Lee movies have a tendency to use the story to service a larger message or agenda, one that exists outside of the film. Lee's 2008 feature film, Miracle at St. Anna is certainly no exception.
James McBride wrote the screenplay, based on his own novel, which tells the story of four African American soldiers, all members of the 92 Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers, during World War II. The majority of the film finds these four men, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), and Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), in a small Italian village behind enemy lines.
The men ended up there when one of them, Train, saves an orphaned Italian boy, Angelo Torancelli (Matteo Sciabordi) in the midst of a battle, and are quickly assigned by their white commander (who is miles away) to capture a German soldier – any German soldier – in order to extract upcoming battle plans. The soldiers run into the Italian resistance and eventually learn all about Angelo and his troubled past.
While the vast majority of the action takes place during the Second World War, the film begins and ends with a truly captivating frame that takes place in 1983/4 with an older Negron, now a postal worker, murdering one of the patrons of the post office. It is a reporter, Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who learns all about Negron and his life (direct from Negron himself), after finding the head of a famous statue in Negron's closet following his arrest.
Lee and McBride do a wonderful job of depicting the World War II Buffalo Soldiers, and the adversity they faced both from the enemy and their allies and commanders. In one of the most interesting sequences in the film, as a battle with the Germans is about to commence, the soldiers hear broadcast from a truck a German woman talking to the African American soldiers in English about how they aren't appreciated by their commanders and how they would be if they changed sides and fought for the Germans. While the second half of the statement is obviously patently false, the film makes it clear that the first half isn't necessarily that far off (depending on the specific commander, of course).
Miracle wisely eschews giving any easy answers. There are good U.S. soldiers and bad ones, Italians fighting for and against the Resistance, and even brutal and kind Nazi soldiers. The only thing that the film makes plain is that war is brutal for everyone, from those involved to innocent bystanders.
The film, while bloody and horrific at times, is actually rather subdued in its depiction of carnage when compared to other recent war movies. There are moments when atrocities are shown, but there are no extended scenes with body parts flying everywhere. The gore in the film is used in support of the story as opposed to standing in for it.
The biggest disappointment in the piece is that the frame never feels fully developed. The movie begins and ends with the frame, but one never gets the sense that we are told enough about it. John Turturro and John Leguizamo both appear ever so briefly during this part of the film, but disappear before it's ever made clear why the film bothered creating the characters. However, with a runtime of 160 minutes, it could simply be that the rest of their scenes (if they were shot) ended up on the cutting room floor.
Unfortunately, this disappointment could be placed under a larger umbrella of the film simply having too many storylines to deal with. There is a story with the Resistance which isn't discussed as much as it ought to be, one with the Nazis that fails to be delved into, both of which deal with the "miracle" that took place at St. Anna. While the movie is a good one, too much is left unsaid for it to be a great one.
The Blu-ray release of Miracle at St. Anna features excellent sound design, which places the viewer squarely in the middle of all the battle scenes, with bullets whizzing past. The film's colors are all subtle – there is nothing bright about this war – but there is no damage to the film present (one wouldn't expect there to be for a new release), and the black levels are quite dark.
As for special features, the disc contains two featurettes delving into the history of the Buffalo Soldiers. One is more of a straight documentary-style piece, while the other features a roundtable discussion with African American WWII veterans. Both clock in at under 20 minutes and prove more than a little interesting. The history lessons, both first and third person, are quite memorable. The disc contains the usual assortment of deleted scenes as well, some which may have improved the failings in depth the movie has, but certainly not completely fixed them.
Watching Miracle at St. Anna will leave the viewer with the impression that they are watching a great talent at work on a great idea. Unfortunately, putting together great talents and great ideas don't always make for a great film. There is a lot to like in the piece, a lot to chew on after the movie is done, but there is simply too much here that isn't explored as it ought to have been to make this a great movie. The film would likely have been helped by either having an epic four hour runtime or a fewer subplots to discuss.