Spike Lee's Heavy Artillery Blasts 'St. Anna'
Friday, September 26, 2008
Much like the four soldiers at its center, there's a taut wartime thriller caught behind enemy lines in "Miracle at St. Anna." But unlike the African American GIs pinned between German troops and the racist and incompetent Army brass they serve, the movie that "Miracle" might have been winds up a casualty of schmaltzy, patronizing sentiment on the one hand and overweening ambition on the other.
Directed by Spike Lee with an unusually heavy hand (even for him), "Miracle at St. Anna" is one of the most highly anticipated films of the season, in large part because it's the first major motion picture to represent the experience of black soldiers in World War II. That historic burden weighs heavily on Lee, who has made a film that seeks to do way too many things -- correct a badly distorted record, deliver old-fashioned wartime goose bumps, offer a few salacious sexual asides, pull heartstrings and, oh yes, spin it all into a fairy tale of childlike spiritual transcendence -- and winds up doing none of them well.
"Miracle at St. Anna," which is based on the novel by James McBride, begins in the 1980s, when a postal worker nearing retirement mysteriously pulls out a gun and shoots a customer dead during the Christmas rush. After a few perfunctory scenes (one featuring John Turturro as a cop spitting out some particularly Damon Runyonesque dialogue), the action springs back to 1944, when four "buffalo soldiers" of the 92nd Infantry Division find themselves in a remote Italian village, surrounded by German troops.
As a group, they hew to the classic "one of each" temperamental distribution of World War II pictures: Sgt. Stamps (Derek Luke), the upright stalwart who believes the America he left behind is capable of change; Sgt. Cummings (Michael Ealy), the smooth-talking lothario who harbors a far angrier pessimism; Cpl. Negron (Laz Alonso), who as a Puerto Rican doesn't consider himself part of the racial conversation; and Pvt. Train (Omar Benson Miller), a huge, dimwitted gentle giant who has informally adopted a quiet Italian orphan named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) and who carries with him a piece of statuary that he's convinced makes him invisible and all-powerful.
After a bloody battle (caused by their clueless white platoon leader), the four men are stranded behind enemy lines, where they eventually make their way to a tiny village populated by Italian partisans, a few Fascist sympathizers and a sultry young woman named Renata (Valentina Cervi), who quickly becomes an object of sexual rivalry between Stamps and Cummings.
Meanwhile, Train and Angelo forge a strong psychic bond, with the young boy calling his protector "the chocolate giant" and Train convinced that his ward is something of a mystic ("Good God, he got the power!"). Once the men get their radio working -- thanks, perhaps, to the boy's intervention -- they learn that they are to take a German soldier prisoner in order to extract intelligence from him; as it happens, one has recently gone AWOL, and a group of pro-Allies Italians in the foothills are in the process of taking him themselves. (McBride's novel was based on real events, including the massacre of more than 500 Italian civilians on Aug. 12, 1944.)
How all these characters and forces converge forms the fulcrum of "Miracle at St. Anna," which, due to its myriad moving parts, almost can't help being a tangled skein of exposition-heavy scenes, billboard-like speeches and flashbacks-within-flashbacks -- all interlarded with commentary about the contradictions of black men serving a country mired in Jim Crow racism back home.
The film features three scenes of sadistic brutality, two of them civilian massacres that Lee films with lurid, over-aestheticized excess; just when the story seems to kick in as an absorbing cat-and-mouse game of loyalty and betrayal, he inexplicably changes focus, as often as not to a shot of Cervi removing her sweater.
Gratuitous sexuality has always been one of Lee's weaknesses, and here it's on particularly unsavory display, especially in a post-coital scene featuring Renata and one of her suitors. And in an almost three-hour movie, those preoccupations leach vital energy away from the four men who should be at center stage. Stamps, Cummings, Negron and Train never come fully into their own as characters, crowded out as they are by subplots, speechifying and other distractions.
Of the group, Train is particularly problematic as an example of the "magical Negro" stereotype that has bedeviled movies from "The Green Mile" to "Million Dollar Baby." A condescending extension of the Noble Savage, the shamanistic gentle giant is a trope no less troubling for being so putatively benign.
As if the core story of "Miracle at St. Anna" weren't handled awkwardly enough, Lee hangs it all on the rickety scaffolding of a truly ridiculous framing device, with a nonsensical cameo appearance by John Leguizamo at the beginning and a "Fantasy Island"-like wrap-up at the end. With that final insult, "Miracle at St. Anna" finds Lee, always a wildly uneven filmmaker, at his most confounding, using all manner of stylistic and narrative hyperbole to obscure otherwise legible and gripping material.
Overwrought, overproduced, overbusy and overlong, "Miracle at St. Anna" finally suffers from the most grievous filmmaking sin of all: the failure of trust, in the story and the audience. And no miracle can overcome that.
Miracle at St. Anna (155 minutes, at area theaters, in English, German and Italian with subtitles) is rated R for strong war violence, profanity, sexual content and nudity.