I often find Spike Lee’s work very frustrating. I usually like fifty percent of each movie, but then there’s the remaining fifty percent that just infuriates me. It’s not bad filmmaking; it’s just unnecessary filmmaking. While the stuff that’s good is really, really good I find a lot of material in his films that doesn’t further the story, that is preachy, and simply doesn’t belong there. At almost three hours his new film, the World War II drama Miracle at St. Anna, is simply the latest in a long line of Lee’s films that could benefit from judicious editing.
Based on the novel of the same name by James McBride, Miracle at St. Anna tells the story of four African-American soldiers from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division fighting in the Italian Campaign. When one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy the four get trapped near a small Tuscan village.
The bones of the story were, in part, inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre wherein hundreds of Italian men and women were slaughtered by the Waffen-SS in retaliation to Italian partisan activity.
The film starts string with an extended clip from the John Wayne war movie The Longest Day. As Lee’s camera pulls back we see an older African-American man watching the movie in his apartment. “Pilgrim,” he mumbles to himself and the television, “we fought for this country too…” It’s a powerful moment, followed by a stunner of a scene set in the early 1980s that sets up the murder mystery subplot that bookends the World War II scenes that make up the bulk of the film.
Unfortunately once the film settles in WWII Italy it loses much of its steam. The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is an important and often overlooked story but Lee stretches the narrative past its breaking point, adding in a mystical element involving a statue head—the gritty realism of the war scenes are at odds with the supernatural aura surrounding the head—a Cinema Paradiso-esque child and characters that seem sketched rather than richly drawn. The movie, at two hours and forty-five minutes, feels overlong, but may have worked better had Lee given us some really compelling characters.
The four young actors portraying the soldiers, Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller and Derek Luke, hand in good performances—Benson Miller is particularly effective as the gentle giant Train—but are stymied by a script that presents them as plot devices or points of view rather than fully rounded people.
Miracle at St. Anna has some great moments. An early battle scene with the 92nd Division crossing a river is gripping, the massacre at St. Anna shocking and a claustrophobic clash between the Buffalo Soldiers and Nazi troops in an Italian village beautifully shot and edited. But for every high point Miracle at St. Anna has two more that seem out of place or inappropriate and I don’t want to even discuss the film’s final scene, a bit of magic realism that will leave many an audience member scratching their heads.
Spike Lee came to this material with a noble purpose—to shine a light on an underreported part of WWII history—but his heavy hand with the story undermines his good intentions.