There are few guarantees in life — you’re going to die someday, you’ve got to pay your taxes, no good can come from smoking methamphetamine, and Spike Lee will make a movie that, at its core, has deep, driving racial overtones. Yep, that’s right boys and girls, it is a sure-fire guarantee that Spike Lee will make a film about black-white relations (just look at the Vegas odds). Miracle at St. Anna is his latest, this time taking racial strife off of the streets and placing it in the theater of war.
The film is told mostly through a flashback (for a staggering 160 minutes), after Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), a postal worker, gets himself in trouble in the present day. He tells the incredible story of when he and three fellow soldiers of the 92nd Infantry were stuck behind enemy lines in Tuscany, Italy during WWII. Specifically, trapped alongside him were his brothers-in-arms: Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller).
What transpires are several intertwined stories involving the individuals and the team as a whole. One, and the most obvious, deals with the fact that these four African-American soldiers find themselves fighting for a country that treats them as second-rate citizens. We’re constantly reminded of it throughout, but to really drive this notion home, Lee inserts a maddening scene in which our heroes are denied service at a Southern diner while enemy prisoners of war relax within. Within the harshness of the circumstances (war is hell, folks), Lee also tosses in a powerful, albeit out of place, father-son relationship between Train and a young Italian boy he saved from death, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Further shaping the course of the movie are the soldier’s good and bad interactions with the likes of Renata (Valentina Cervi), the Italian woman whose family gives the soldiers a safe place to hide and is the object of desire of Cummings and Stamps, and Peppi ‘The Great Butterfly’ Grotta (Pierfrancesco Favino), the man who leads the region’s anti-fascist resistance.
I can’t find much fault in the leads characterizations — they all bring their best performances to the table — although for the most part, I wasn’t terribly moved by their plight. This isn’t the actor’s fault by any means though — that blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the film’s director, Spike Lee. There are just too many unneeded scenes that drag the performances down and detract from the flow of the film. It was as if Lee couldn’t part with all the extra footage he shot so he had it all spliced in (that’s what DVD extras are for, Spike). Out of the unneeded bloat, only the time spent on the relationship between Omar Benson Miller’s and Matteo Sciabordi’s characters is extra time well spent, as their performances easily outshine those of the rest of the cast.
It’s due to the glacierly slow movement and clumsy narrative of Miracle at St. Anna that, after the first hour (recall the movie is nearly three hours long), I found myself praying for a miracle of my own — one that would make the time pass quicker. Answering those prayers were some realistic, in-your-face, Saving Private Ryan-esque battle scenes that, when flashed upon the screen, did manage to re-engage me. Sadly they were too short and spaced too far apart to keep my enthusiasm up.
I certainly expected more from Spike Lee with this film, especially since his last movie, Inside Man, was directed so well. Squandered was the very real opportunity to really create a moving and haunting experience with Miracle at St. Anna. Delivered is an exhausting composition that tries too hard to convince the viewer of its importance. That being said, had the movie not tried to cover so much ground and been an hour shorter in length, I’m sure I’d have come to a different conclusion.