Miracle at St. Anna

(2008) ** 1/2 R
160 min. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director: Spike Lee. Cast: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino.

/content/films/3329/5.jpgSpike Lee's war film Miracle at St. Anna sets out with the intention of righting the wrong of four decades of whitewashed WWII pictures. While its very existence serves the purpose, Lee's epic take on James McBride's novel is problematic as a narrative: even at 161 minutes, there's not enough time to flesh out the African-American protagonists, which is ostensibly the film's raison d'être. For all its flaws, Miracle at St. Anna is a worthy effort: by virtue of its cultural content, it's an important film (at least until someone makes a better one), and the further compensation of Lee's restless intelligence speaks in the film's favor.

Lee admirably allows McBride to author the screenplay adaptation, which retains the structure of a mystery. When postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) shoots a customer to death with a Luger in 1983 New York City, police discover in Negron's apartment the long-missing 450-year-old marble "Primavera" head, from the Santa Trinita Bridge in Florence. Inquiring minds—including rookie reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—want to know: what bedevils Negron, and where did he get a priceless Italian relic? Cut to 1944 Tuscany, during the Fall Campaign. As the "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 92nd infantry division advance through enemy territory, they're harangued by the psychological warfare of "Axis Sally," via a Nazi radio broadcast blaring over the battlefield. Though her seductive purring is clearly a Siren call, it also has an unfortunate ring of truth about racist America: these soldiers fighting for America can't vote and, since they aren't integrated, the African-American troops are easier to marginalize, at times fatally.

One unit winds up stranded alone in a Tuscan village: 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) and Corporal Hector Negron. The mentally challanged Train befriends an eight-year-old Italian urchin named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), who sustains a concussion during a Nazi attack; as the soldiers ingratiate themselves with the Tuscan villagers and await troop support, they're under orders to capture a German soldier. Their mission is both aided and complicated by Italian partisans, who have a Nazi prisoner and don't want to give him up. To make matters worse, there's a traitor among the partisans determined to undermine their efforts.

The narrative relies heavily on the bonding between the hulking simpleton Train and the boy who calls him the "Chocolate Giant." The sticky storyline's nominal success is owed more to Sciabordi—who seems incapable of a false moment—than to Miller, who pops his eyes and rolls his vowels like the dumb dog in those old Warner Brothers' parodies of Of Mice and Men. Luke, Ealy and Alonso are better, but they have far less to do. Ealy's job is to play the cynical jerk: holding out for $1400 he's won off of Train, carelessly bedding women, and reminding Stamps, "This is a white man's war." Stamps' and Cummings' rivalry for the attentions of beautiful local Renata (Valentina Cervi) has the seemingly unintended effect of demeaning Stamps as a hotheaded fool, undermining his otherwise straight-arrow leadership. (Another exception: a flashback interlude in which the foursome raise their guns to racist Americans.)

/content/films/3329/6.jpgLee's main point is made within the first five minutes, when Negron, with remote control in hand, tells the John Wayne of The Longest Day, "Pilgrim, we fought for this country too." It's arguably a fatal issue that the mostly New York-set framing device is more scintillating than the meat of the story in Tuscany. There's a case to be made that the main plot is a slow unraveling instead of the gripping drama it strives to be. The mediocre character definition doesn't help, and I'll have to take McBride's word for it that a mentally challenged grunt who believes the Primavera gives him the strength of five men and makes him invisible would plausibly be allowed to serve. Also, Lee botches the film's initial war scene with weak battlefield geography.

On the other hand, Lee skillfully stages a climactic battle, set among the cobblestone and staircases of the village, and the two-part denouement involving Angelo's fate has a poetic power. Lee and McBride weave a number of other interesting ideas into the film's patchwork fabric. The local color includes the political arguments and personal strife within a loving Italian family, and the story incorporates a defining historical event in their community: the devastating Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre. Though this time Lee's African-American social debate comes across as clunky, it's certainly heartfelt. In Luke's best moment, he expresses mixed feelings at his wartime plight: "Gettin' to love Italy. I'm not a nigger here." Lee also makes room for favorite actors John Turturro (as a fast-talking NYPD detective) and John Leguizamo as a Roman dealer specializing in Nazi art. Some will find the wavering tone and lack of character definition fatal (on a first viewing, I did), but Lee's simply too smart and talented to make a dismissible film. 

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/10/2009

Distributor: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

Disney gives Miracle at St. Anna its Blu-ray and DVD debut in substantial special editions. The picture quality is exceptional, as one would hope from a brand-new film. Lee's visual design looks just as it did in theatres: a more stylized, subtle color scheme with deep blacks and a gritty feel for the historical storyline and a more straightforward crisp look for the present-day scenes. It all looks just as it should, and the imagery shows great detail. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is equally impeccable: the war sequences pack a serious punch, but the track is equally adept at subtler ambient surround effects.

It's a shame Lee didn't provide a commentary track, but two excellent featurettes add notable historical context to the film. In "Deeds Not Words" (17:07, HD), Spike Lee hosts a roundtable discussion with author-screenwriter James McBride, Roscoe Brown (Tuskegee Airman), William Perry (92nd Infantry Division), Spencer Moore (370th Infantry regiment), James Tillman (370th regiment, 92nd Division), Joe Stephenson (365th regiment, 92nd Division), and Lee A. Archer (Junior Tuskegee Airman). The discussion is informative, but even more so personable, with Lee teasing out the men's personality and humor.

"The Buffalo Soldier Experience" (21:35, HD) takes a more traditional documentary tack in discussing the men of the 92nd regiment and the Italians who welcomed them. Interviewees include Lee, McBride, Perry, historian Chad Williams, NYU professor of journalism Yvonne Latty, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke, senior military advisor Billy Budd, and Cesira Cabrelli, Irma Cabrelli and Jana Corrieri of Tuscany.

Nine "Deleted Scenes" (21:00 with "Play All" option, HD) are partly comprised of extended alternate scenes, but there's some valuable material here from the cutting room floor. Spike Lee fans have good reason to pony up for this well-produced Blu-ray disc or its DVD counterpart.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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