No Matter the Runtime and Budget, Spike Lee's WWII Drama 'Miracle at St. Anna' Is an Epic Bore

Very Minor Miracle
No matter the runtime and budget, Spike Lee’s World War II drama is an epic bore

On some level, you’ve got to hand it to Spike Lee. There are probably fewer than a handful of directors working in Hollywood today who could put together the financing for a three-hour war movie lacking any marquee names and performed largely in Italian and German with English subtitles.

Spielberg could do it, of course. And, to an extent, Lee’s resident bête noire, Clint Eastwood, already did with his sprawling Iwo Jima diptych. But after that, the list grows short, and even Lee himself might not have managed to pull off such a risky enterprise were it not for the massive success of his highly entertaining 2006 caper picture, Inside Man. So, he seized on the moment to make an adaptation of James McBride’s novel Miracle at St. Anna, about the African-American “buffalo soldiers” who served bravely for the U.S. during World War II.

David Lee

It’s a fine idea for a movie. But Miracle at St. Anna is a curious film that only grows more curious as it marches along its lengthy course. The opening scenes already strike a discordant note; just because Spielberg and Eastwood opened their WWII opuses with clunky modern-day framing sequences, did Lee feel obliged to follow suit? That’s what it feels like as Miracle at St. Anna plunks us down in a Harlem apartment circa 1983, where an elderly black man watches a television broadcast of John Wayne in The Longest Day and mutters under his breath, “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too.” That same man then proceeds to walk into a post office, take one look at the elderly Italian man behind the counter window, pull out a Luger pistol and splatter the clerk’s brains all over the wall. A detective (John Turturro) and a Jimmy Olsen-ish cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turn up at the scene, both of them sounding like Damon Runyon wrote their lines. Meanwhile, back at the Harlem apartment, some other cops unearth a highly valuable piece of wartime booty stashed in the gunman’s closet. Cue flashbacks.

With the unwieldy setup finally out of the way, Lee takes us to Tuscany, 1944, where the all-black 92nd Infantry Division fight off, in nearly equal measure, Nazis and racist epithets issued by white commanding officers. Lee stages the first battle scene ably, but without any of the visceral dynamism of the most affecting WWII films. When the smoke settles, four soldiers—Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and PFC Sam Train (newcomer Omar Benson Miller)—find themselves stranded behind enemy lines, where they rescue a young Italian boy trapped in the rubble and take shelter with a family of chatty, gesticulating, tea-leaf-reading Italian villagers.

Miracle at St. Anna is piled to the rafters with cutesy-kid antics, Olive Garden Italians, Hogan’s Heroes Krauts and even a mythical peasant hero who’s either a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on where you stand. Not that the soldiers themselves are markedly freer of cliché—although all four actors perform well under the circumstances, they’re hemmed in by familiar archetypes: the polemical, radicalized Negro (Ealy) who delivers lines such as “This is a white man’s war”; the articulate, “white-acting” soldier (Luke) who gets accused of being an Uncle Tom; and the physical giant (Miller) who turns out to be a smiling, childlike simpleton prone to religion and superstition.

There’s even a courtroom finale and a grotesquely pseudo-Spielbergian parting shot. Mostly, though, our heroes cool their heels in the titular village for what must only be a few days, but feels like months. In making a movie for the history books, Spike Lee seems to have entirely forgotten about his audience.

Miracle at St. Anna was directed by Spike Lee; written by James McBride, based on his novel. Opens Fri. Countywide.

 
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