Miracle at St. Anna (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Miracle at St. Anna Poster

Recently, Spike Lee was in the news feuding with Clint Eastwood about the absence of black servicemen in Eastwood's recent Iwo Jima duology. According to Lee, Eastwood ignored history in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima by not making any of the American characters black. Eastwood succinctly responded by suggesting that Lee should "Shut [his] face." One could argue that Lee's reason for making his complaint public was to garner publicity for Miracle at St. Anna, the controversial filmmaker's World War II tale about black soldiers in the European theater. Knowing Lee to be as passionate as he is outspoken, I prefer to believe his words are reflective of his feelings rather than just sound bites useful for the promotion of a film. Maybe the distributor (Disney/Touchstone) feels otherwise.

Miracle at St. Anna is historical fiction based on the novel by James McBride (who wrote the screenplay). It follows four members of the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers caught behind enemy lines in a small village in Tuscany during the waning days of the war. The Germans have become desperate and are turning against their Italian allies and the spillover of this conflict reaches all the way into the seemingly remote hiding place where Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso), and Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) are awaiting extraction. While there, they share some quiet moments with the locals, care for a boy rescued by Train from a collapsing building, and prepare for the inevitable that will accompany the arrival of the Germans.

Lee emphasizes the prejudice experienced by black soldiers during the second World War in ways both subtle and obvious. One character tellingly remarks that he "feels more free in a foreign country" than at home. Sex between a black man and a white woman is not the taboo in Tuscany that it would have been in the United States, although the sequences used to illustrate this have a distinct "soap opera" feel. The arguments presented in Miracle at St. Anna are not dissimilar to those uncovered in Edward Zwick's 1989 feature, Glory, although there's an 80 year gap between the time periods reflected in the movies, and the earlier film is a more complete motion picture. Lee arguably becomes too heavy-handed with his decision to make a commanding officer a one-note racist. But it's easy enough to understand why he pounds the pulpit so hard, since stories of black wartime heroism are few and far between. (The Tuskegee Airmen is probably the best known of only a few examples.)

The film's acting is better than adequate and, as is often desirable in ensemble pictures, no one actor hogs the spotlight. The best performance is provided by Derek Luke who, as the leader of the ragtag group, radiates ability and moral uprightness. Stamps is the kind of man anyone would want to serve under in circumstances like this, and Luke gives him the necessary dignity, whether the scene is one in which he's planning the men's escape from Tuscany or one in which he is rebuffing the advances of an attractive Italian woman. As Cummings, Michael Ealy has the unenviable job of playing the somewhat stereotyped part of the man who's good in a fight but a pain-in-the-ass when bullets aren't flying. Ealy does what's needed, though, by mixing a brash hostility with a stark recognition of reality, and crafting a personality that is by turns abrasive and sober. Laz Alonso Omar Benson Miller form the other two sides of the four-man rectangle. John Leguizamo and John Turturro provide cameos.

Those expecting battle scenes will be disappointed. This is a war move with a minimum of fighting. The total of on-screen shooting tops out around 10 or 15 minutes - well under what one might expect from a film of this length about this subject. Limiting the action allows for more character interaction; unfortunately, this aspect is of variable quality. Some of the quieter, more reflective scenes work, but many of the talky, dialogue-driven ones do not. Although the majority of the movie takes place in the '40s, the story is bookended by sequences transpiring in 1984, when a murder with World War II roots has occurred. While the near-contemporary opening draws the viewer into the story and creates a sense of mystery about the proceedings, it's questionable whether this approach to the material serves the story well. The back-end of the bookend, forming the epilogue, is contrived and unconvincing.

Miracle at St. Anna is overlong and poorly focused. It tends to meander, the military context is not well established, and too much time is spent on interaction with underdeveloped secondary characters. On the other hand, there are three exceptionally powerful sequences: an event early in the proceedings during which members of the 92nd must face a verbal barrage from propagandist "Axis Sally" as they approach an engagement, a German massacre at a church, and the final battle against improbable odds. There's enough energy in those scenes to indicate what Miracle at St. Anna could have been. Because of the subject matter, it's impossible not to admire what Lee has wrought here, and the evident passion with which it has been brought to the screen. However, the realization is flawed, and those flaws make this 160-minute epic feel a little too much like an ordeal.

Miracle at St. Anna (United States, 2008)

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi
Screenplay: James McBride, based on his novel
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Terence Blanchard
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-09-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1