Why, Spike, Why?

2008-09-26 (General release)

There may be a subtle bone somewhere in Spike Lee, but it would take a team of skilled surgeons to find it. There is also a great artist in there, but he’s often not so easily found. Lee is a firebrand, a lazy sloganeer, a provocateur, an unusually forthright and sincere polemicist, a recondite cynic of the worst kind, a visionary, a hack, always about an inch away from never making another movie in this town again, and somebody who might have changed the face of Hollywood. Lee is capable of making some of the most supple and moving cinema of our time, and also some of the least watchable drek.

Witness Lee’s staggering fall from 2006’s astounding thriller Inside Man and passionate documentary When the Levees Broke, to this fall’s Miracle at St. Anna, a cringing disaster that makes one look back fondly on the likes of Windtalkers. It’s the sort of thing Lee’s done before, in a pattern that seems almost deliberate.

Who else but Lee would follow up a career-defining film like Do the Right Thing with rambling time-wasters like Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle Fever? Granted, unlike those films, Miracle at St. Anna seems to have started out with somewhat of a point, and fails from an overly ambitious narrative (among other things); it’s not a film by a man who wants to rest on his laurels. It in instead quite strangely a film made by a man who seems strangely befuddled by his subject matter, and unable to find the proper tone. For a filmmaker who has built a good part of his oeuvre on a mastery of mood and setting (often at the expense of story and character), this whole film represents a strange lapse.

Maybe Lee just wanted to make a World War II movie. Doesn’t every director?

For all of Lee’s status as the eternal Young Turk, forever blurting out ill-considered lines at testy press conferences and tilting his lance at the windmill of a complacent white America, he’s also a moviemaker who came of age just a few years after the brat pack of Spielberg, Scorsese, de Palma, et al. About half a generation behind that wave of auteurs, Lee is old enough to be thoroughly steeped in the classic mid-century genres of the Western, the war movie, and the musical, but not quite so young as the Tarantinos and Ritchies and Smiths that he wasn’t able to experience the ’70s personally, instead of through the prism of film. Lee’s made his epic (Malcolm X), his musical School Daze, and now his war film. If only he’d quit while he was ahead.

Like any serious movie brat, Lee starts things off nice and obvious. An old black man watches that lumbering D-Day classic The Longest Day, with white America’s great stentorian proxy of masculinity John Wayne among a division’s worth of other white actors, and rasps at the screen, “We fought, too.” You could be forgiven for thinking, It’s about time. Films of the war have been notoriously limited in their coloration, save for the occasional token casting (The Dirty Dozen, say), something that Hollywood is easily able to do by dint of the army at that time still (embarrassingly) segregated. One couldn’t have black soldiers on screen without making it a film about a black unit, and why would anyone want to do that? So, Lee wanted to address the despicable lack of stories about black soldiers who fought and died in World War II, excellent. Unfortunately, he also wanted to make a mystery and a touching fable at the same time, and didn’t seem to have an idea of how to make any of them work.

It can’t be said that Miracle at St. Anna lacks for ambition. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another war film since The Thin Red Line where the first hour or so will have left the audience as befuddled as to the filmmaker’s intent as this one does. After the man scowls at John Wayne for a time in his early-1980s New York apartment, he goes to work at the post office and, upon seeing a familiar face in his window, guns down another old man with a German Luger that he just happened to keep on him at work. Police then find a marble head hidden in his closet that turns out to be a priceless artifact missing from Italy since the war. Then, after a detective and a reporter (John Turturro and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trade enough purple Noo Yawk-speak for an entire season’s worth of NYPD Blue, the reporter starts getting the story out of the old man.

What follows this laborious and overly elaborate framing device is really little more than your standard platoon film. In Tuscany 1944, A few men from the 92nd Division, a black unit named the Buffalo Soldiers, get separated from their unit and one of them (who just so happens to be hauling that same marble head being wondered about in New York decades later) ends up shepherding a terrified and shellshocked young boy who keeps talking to an imaginary friend. They find a hilltop village to hole up in while they figure out their next move and argue over who’s going to win the favor of the local beauty, a brazenly wanton sort who doesn’t mind flinging her shirt off around the men.

Ensuring the audience won’t feel much attached to what happens to these men is how Lee and the script by James McBride (based on his novel) swamps them in the most basic form of typecasting. There’s your gentle giant (Omar Benson Miller), a laughably simple-minded sort who seems cast by Looney Tunes; the upwardly-mobile sergeant, who helps Lee break the old show-don’t-tell rule by intoning the script’s Messages where needed (Derek Luke, flat); the whites-hating cynic with a gold tooth who sees all the rest of them as Uncle Toms (Michael Ealy, one-note); and the thoughtful and sensitive one, a Puerto Rican translator (played with restraint by Laz Alonso) who is the only one allowed even a modicum of depth.

Rather strangely for Lee, who’s usually able to produce a number of sharply-drawn figures in each film, even if they are caricatures, none of these men make much of an impression. But even if they had, Lee’s unsure handling of the material probably would have ruined that as well. Battle scenes are hacked together in seemingly arbitrary fashion and the performances are dismayingly rote, as though Lee couldn’t manage to find the locus of the story so that his actors could make much sense of it.

With the fog-shrouded and woody mountains of the Serchio River valley as his backdrop, a gentle giant of a guardian looming over much of the film, and a young boy who seems to effect miracles, a good part of Miracle at St. Anna skirts with fable. Only it’s a fable that keeps butting heads with the platoon film, a director whose tone jumps from light to dark without much warning, and about a half-dozen other subplots (racist white officers, partisan intrigue) that keep cropping up. Faux magical is the mood that wins the day, with the heapings of peasant hokum becoming so pronounced that you wouldn’t be shocked to see a grinning Roberto Benigni ride a donkey up the mountain to warn the men of a Nazi attack.

A monumentally cynical piece of work, Miracle at St. Anna wants to give us a history lesson of hard reality but still wrap it up in a sickly sweet package. Working as neither drama, nor fable, nor war film, it’s a tone-deaf failure from start to finish. There is more truth about this conflict and its tragic complexities, particularly regarding race, to be found in five minutes’ worth of Ken Burns’ The War than in all 166 minutes of Miracle at St. Anna.