Critics are raining down hard on Spike Lee's first war epic. And it's not like I don't have objections. Miracle at St. Anna is too long, lazily constructed, and crammed with too many characters and subplots for any director to develop fully outside of an HBO miniseries. But Lee isn't any director. He's an African-American maverick with a legit gripe against the white face that Hollywood puts on war. The first scene in Miracle shows us a black World War II veteran watching John Wayne on TV lording it over the D-Day invasion in The Longest Day. "We fought that war too," says the vet. Point taken.
It's no surprise that Lee decided to make a film of James McBride's well-received novel about the Buffalo Soldiers, black GIs segregated from the regular Army, who served with the 92nd Infantry division. Lee brought on McBride to write the script, probably a mistake, since McBride is reluctant to let anything go.
The main focus of the story — the film has a 1980s prologue and epilogue it surely didn't need — is on the soldiers who endure fire to cross a river into German-occupied Tuscany in 1944. Taking up residence in the village of Colognora, Second Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) learn to adjust to a new culture, one more tolerant than their own.
While Aubrey and Bishop compete over Renata (Valentina Cervi), the daughter of a local fascist, the partisans discuss their plan of attack (in Italian with English subtitles). If that's not enough, Train adopts an Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who calls him the "chocolate giant" and sparks flashbacks to the slaughter at St. Anna that gives the movie its title. Lee is clearly saluting Italian neorealist films of the war period, such as Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Roberto Rossellini's Paisan and Open City. But despite a strong performance from Miller, the relationship lacks the necessary rigor.
There are individual sequences, shot beautifully by Matthew Libatique to a mournful score by Terence Blanchard, that achieve enormous power. As black soldiers fall in an ambush, we hear a radio broadcast from Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara) in which she announces that the Nazis appreciate them more than Americans. In a flashback to home, we see black men in basic training thrown out of a Southern diner while Nazi prisoners — holed up in the same camp — are treated to a full meal. A meeting between two German officers suggests that division in the ranks on what defines following orders is not exclusive to Americans.
It goes on. The film collapses because Lee can't sew these vignettes into a seamless tapestry. He's more interested in getting even than he is in getting it right. Miracle at St. Anna lacks the cumulative power it sorely needs. Lee has always been a filmmaker willing to take risks. Some pay off thrillingly (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, 4 Little Girls, Inside Man). Others founder through bombast and overreaching (Bamboozled, Girl 6, She Hate Me). Miracle at St. Anna brings out the feisty best and petulant worst in Lee in one unwieldy package. Blast away at the stilted dialogue, underlined ironies, pandering sentiment and huge flaws in execution. What still shines through is the film's grand ambition. Lee is eager to make movies about black history that reflect truths too long denied. His failure here is neither total nor shameful. In a craven Hollywood where success is measured by how well a filmmaker does nothing but repeat the same formula for repeated financial gain, it seems dead wrong to damn Spike Lee for trying to do too much.