I’m willing to give Spike Lee the benefit of the doubt. Even when his reach exceeds his grasp, he’s overreaching in a good cause – or, at least, making an interesting effort to explore territory that others ignore.
But “Miracle at St. Anna” is just a mess – and an unconscionably long mess at that, clocking in at 160 minutes. There are probably three different, better and shorter movies that could be carved out of this material. Too late now.
Lee’s career has been a study in forward motion – this is his 17th feature since “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986, and that’s not to mention the handful of outstanding documentaries he’s made. Lee has swerved from critical hits to critical misses and back again, with his share of underappreciated gems (“Clockers,” “He Got Game,” “Summer of Sam”) and outright head-scratchers such as “Crooklyn” (obviously a personal film), “Bamboozled” and “She Hate Me,” that were audacious both because they were so in-your-face and because of how unwatchable they could be.
But they don’t call him Spike for nothing. Lee is a scrappy, combative and assertive filmmaker who’s going to do things his way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; it’s interesting that his biggest commercial success, 2006’s “Inside Man,” was probably his least personal (though it featured several of his stylized tropes).
“Miracle at St. Anna” tries to be several things at once: a WWII action film, a story of faith, an indictment of American racism, a political thriller, even an interracial romance. What’s the expression: jack of all trades, master of none? Or perhaps the apt term is hodge-podge.
Let’s start with its framing device: An elderly black man (Laz Alonso) is seen in 1983, watching “The Longest Day” on TV – specifically some of John Wayne’s scenes, and muttering, “We fought, too.” (Take that, Clint Eastwood.)
Then he’s seen working at what looks like New York’s main branch of the U.S. Post Office, selling stamps behind the counter – until an elderly white man with an accent approaches and asks for stamps. Obviously recognizing him, the black man casually pulls a Luger out of his drawer and lets the guy have it in the chest. Cue the cops and an inquiring reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who uncover a valuable artifact – the head of a statue missing since the war – in a closet in the old man’s apartment.
We’ll return to the elderly black man in an elaborate closing bookend sequence. Rest assured. This mess, at least, ties up its loose ends. But, at this point, it’s time to cue the flashback, which comprises the rest of the movie.
That flashback (and the flashbacks within the flashback) focus on the 92nd Division – the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the only black division to see combat for the U.S. during World War II. They’re first seen in late summer 1944 in Italy, being massacred in an ambush by the Germans while the American commander in the rear (played by Walton Goggins of “The Shield”) refuses to use artillery to protect them because he doesn’t believe they could have gotten as far as they have. Do you need to be told that he’s a Southerner?
From there, the movie focuses on four survivors of that ambush who find themselves behind enemy lines: the upright Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the street-wise Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), radio-toting Cpl. Hector Negron (Alonso) and the childlike bumpkin, Pvt. Train (Omar Benson Miller), who manages to be both superstitiously religious and the requisite gentle giant. Rounding out the group: a preternaturally cute Italian child, whose name (no symbolism stone left unturned here) turns out to be Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi).
They wind up in a remote Italian village in the mountains, where they eventually are tasked with capturing a German to get intelligence about the Nazis’ plans. There are further subplots: an Italian partisan who is being ferociously hunted by the Nazis, who returns to the village; a tug-of-war between Stamps and Bishop over the affections of the only woman in the village who speaks English (Valentina Cervi); the soldiers’ occasional questioning of risking their lives for a country that won’t grant them the perquisites of citizenship back at home.
The movie also spends a great chunk of its time dabbling in questions of faith, as discussed by simple-minded Pvt. Train, as he tries to build a relationship with cute little Angelo. And then, of course, there’s that statue head, which Train collected as a souvenir in the rubble of Florence and now believes renders him invisible and impervious to death.
(Every time he started babbling about the magic powers of the statue and rubbing it for good luck, I thought back to the Little Rascals two-reeler in which Stymie finds what he thinks is Aladdin’s magic lamp and, in frustration at being forced to mind his little brother, Cotton, rubs the lamp and says, “I wisht Cotton wuz a monkey. I wisht Cotton wuz a monkey.” At which point, an escaped chimp pops up in Cotton’s place, in a remarkable demonstration of the period’s racial sensibility. Nothing nearly that interesting happens here.)
Lee doesn’t seem to know which movie he wants to make and so he tries to cram all of them into one unwieldy package. He has a terrific cast but he’s too busy to notice, focused as he is on touching every stylized base – and overwhelming it with what sounds like several yards of standard-issue Terence Blanchard sheet music, with the same mournful changes he used so well in “When the Levees Broke” and “Inside Man.” Too much, too obvious.
I sat through the whole thing out of a sense of duty. You may feel no such obligation. Spike Lee will make other, better movies. You can’t fault him for overreaching, just for not being able to recognize when he should rein himself in.