Spike Lee has a big mouth. It’s a good thing he’s so talented, since he often loves to write confrontational checks that his filmmaking sometimes can’t cash. When Clint Eastwood offered his definitive takes on the Pacific Theater during WWII back in 2006, both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were considered classics. Lee’s response was to chide the American icon for not featuring more African Americans in the films. In his mind, the history of Hollywood moviemaking and the entire war genre has purposefully avoided the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier and the role played by blacks in all major military conflicts. Of course, he has a point. Oddly enough, Lee has decided to put up instead of shut up. And while many may see Miracle at St. Anna as a pointed response, the director is just as guilty as flaunting fact for the sake of an artistic statement.
On a calm day in the early ‘80s, postal worker Hector Negron pulled a German Lugar out from his counter desk and killed a man in cold blood. The police are baffled, especially when they find a rare Italian antiquity in Negron’s apartment. Young reporter Tim Boyle pursues the story, and turns up something shocking. In 1943, four black soldiers - 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, Private First Class Sam Train and Negron - found themselves deep in enemy territory when a river raid went bad. Wandering around the Italian countryside, they befriend an injured boy named Angelo. He leads them to a small village where they are taken in by a local family. Soon, our ‘Buffalo’ soldiers are learning of the vast Nazi presence, the infighting among the resistance, the lack of US support, and the horrible atrocities surrounding the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre.
Miracle at St. Anna is a real revelation. It is also not a perfect film. It tries to do too many things instead of staying firmly centered on the inherently intriguing story of the Buffalo Soldiers. When it does trip around within its flights of fancy, it can be both adept and aggravating. In fact, Spike Lee’s translation of James McBrides novel is so grounded in the book’s literary fancy that it often fails to do its subjects justice. One imagines there were stronger stories available to champion the black man’s contribution to World War II (and the white man’s bigoted response), and when Lee stays with the issue of race, the movie literally sizzles. But with hints of magic realism, a made-up framing device, and lots of historical liberties, what should have been the retort to the director’s recent attacks on films such as Saving Private Ryan becomes just as dodgy and ethnically disingenuous.
Truth be told, Miracle at St. Anna is more about the crimes committed by the Nazis in the name of Hitler’s military schemes than a real look at the African American experience circa 1943. We see more Italians killed than brave black soldiers, and with the narrow focus on four particular types (the smart aleck player, the no nonsense officer, the innocent homunculus, and the audience surrogate) we don’t really get the scope suggested. Lee is painting his canvas with too big a stylistic brush. He indulges in some rather odd touches, overcranking the camera during close-ups and slowing down the motion as someone spills their coffee. Miracle at St. Anna may be a movie about symbols (water, the crucifix), but to make them so obvious hints at a filmmaker unsure of his narrative focus. And at two hours and forty minutes, it’s definitely too long.
Still, for all its flaws and frequent miscalculations, the acting and environment lend Miracle at St. Anna the necessary entertainment credence. All of the leads are fantastic, with Omar Benson Miller simply great as the larger than life Train, and Derek Luke equally dynamic as the wide-eyed and socially optimistic Stamps. Both have stand out moments, especially when addressing the abject bias surrounding them. And when dealing with the frantic decisions that often come with warfare, all bring a remarkable level of authenticity. Yet sometimes, Lee just gets in the way. Make no mistake about it, Miracle is a preachy film. The director frequently stops the action so that his actors can run off a litany of intolerant ills. Some of these speeches are so affected that one wonders if McBride (who is solely credited with the screenplay) actually wrote them. No one is suggesting that such discrimination didn’t exist, but when you’re hoping to champion someone’s bravery under fire, turning them sanctimonious isn’t the best strategy.
Lee is also the recipient of some excessively lofty ambitions. By scattering his story, piecemeal, over a disjointed three hour narrative, we are left wondering where certain segments fit, if at all. While he has answers for most, a couple linger. For example, there are several sore thumb cameos - John Turturro as a conscientious cop, John Leguizamo as an art dealer handling Nazi treasures abroad - and yet neither nostalgic shout out really works. They play like what they appear to be - stunts. Similarly, the company lothario Bishop chases Mediterranean babe Renata around for most of the movie. Their eventual love scene is one of the film’s weakest, most pointless moments. Again, such sequences foster thoughts of how a different, more realistic movie would have handled these men’s plight. Such musings shouldn’t occupy an audience’s attention.
And yet because of the history that exists both with the Buffalo Soldiers and America’s disgraceful history of segregation, we accept and support most of Miracle at St. Anna. Lee may be the first director to benefit from a situation in which strong outside influences actually save a movie. There are definitely concepts in this movie - the Tinto Brass like propaganda queen taunting the troops, the level headed and humane Nazi officer - that we’re not used to seeing, and Lee does love his sledgehammer metaphors and prostylatizing. But since the story here is so important, a forgotten facet of a conflict that seems picked over and populated by hundreds of Discovery Channel documentaries, we go with the flow. Miracle at St. Anna won’t be winning any Oscars come next year, but if it inspires more films about the Buffalo brigade, it will surely have served its purpose. And so will Lee.