Monday, February 2, 2009

Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee has enjoyed a nice comeback over the last few years. “25th Hour” was one of the finest meditations of the mind set of New Yorkers post-9/11, and “Inside Man” was an unlikely box office hit. The success of the latter gave the director — who’d been making films for two decades at the time — an avenue into larger budget Hollywood productions. Unfortunately, the first result of this late career upswing, “Miracle at St. Anna,” is a failure. But what a noble failure it is.

The film focuses on four soldiers from the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” an all-black division, who find themselves deep behind enemy lines and in charge of a wounded Italian boy named Angelo. The four hole up in an Italian village while they try to contact their white division commander, a racist fool who set this all into motion when he failed to call in artillery on the right coordinates because he didn’t listen to his black troops. The longer the group stays, the higher the risk of Nazi discovery.

Had Lee stuck to this plot, this might have been a fine addition to WWII cinema, but “Miracle” gets bogged down in numerous subplots. As the group settle into the village, Stamps (Derek Luke) and Bishop (Michael Ealy) vie for the affections of the town’s resident beautiful woman/English speaker Renata (Valentina Cervi). The Italian boy sparks up a friendship with Train (Omar Benson Miller), a deeply religious, dull-witted soldier who may or may not be mentally challenged. He in turn carries around a sculpted head he found in Florence that he believes gives him good luck. Okey-dokey.

As the film progresses, it and the boy Angelo are responsible for events beyond the explanation of reason. These subplots slowly take over the film, diverting attention away from honoring these brave men. Bishop and Stamps argue over Renata even as Nazi troops descend upon them. Train and the boy are simply annoying, and it makes no sense that soldiers would let a kid continually tag along with them; the explanation given for such a monumental suspension of disbelief is something along the lines of “well, he likes us.”

Worst of all is that the film introduces a series of exponentially more baffling inconsistencies and implausibilities. It’s book-ended by a look at an aged Hector (played in flashback by Laz Alonso) who opens the film with a murder that opens the floodgate of memories. Why then, if this is a flashback, are we at all privy to any meetings between Nazi officers, or Italian freedom fighters, or even between the white commanders of the 92nd Infantry? This inattention to detail makes "Saving Private Ryan's" framing device look plausible. It’s just bad writing, regardless if Lee made it up or it’s in the novel on which the film is based.

Despite the flaws, there are moments of beauty, even genius to be found here. When the soldiers remove themselves from their respective side stories and interact, they offer up classic Lee dialogue: frank, weary, even funny talk about racism. Then the film makes a big diversion to flash back to the four just before deployment, when they have a run-in with a local ice-cream vendor who refuses to serve the men, even though he happily served a group of German detainees. It’s a total aside, but it speaks volumes about the racist treatment even of heroes. Lee also brings an astonishing new level of technique to his directing. AND THEN it goes too far. The soldiers are so incensed that they come back into the shop sporting rifles. Am I seriously supposed to believe that these men wouldn't have been immediately court-martialed and jailed in Leavenworth, if not outright killed?

The battle scenes are here are just as memorable as those in “Saving Private Ryan,” and it’s hard to imagine the creator of “School Daze” and “Mo’ Better Blues” displaying such an epic scope. But by the end of it all, the number of arbitrary, logic-evading “miracles” is infuriating, and it greatly detracts from the film.

When Lee chose this project, he issued a statement that said “there’s really been a bad job of documenting the contribution African-Americans made to this country.” He’s absolutely right. Then why didn’t he do a good one, either? Had he cut out the love-triangle, the pointless miracles, the characters of Train and Angelo, and the “present day” beginning and conclusion, he’d have made a taut, moving war drama that could have doubled as great popcorn entertainment and a thoughtful look at a criminally-neglected part of World War II. Instead, we got a bloated, strung together soap opera with machine guns. Win some, lose some.

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