Touchstone Pictures // 2008 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 10th, 2009
The untold story of courage and brotherhood.
Miracle at St. Anna is an above-average war film. It's also one of the better efforts from director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing). That does not mean, however, that it's a great film, or even a completely successful one. Lee is far too talented a filmmaker to make a movie that isn't at least worth watching, and Miracle at St. Anna has plenty to admire. In experimenting with a genre that's outside his comfort zone, however, Lee flounders, doing a huge disservice to a great story that really should have been told better.
In 1983 in Brooklyn, elderly postal worker and World War II veteran Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, Jarhead) murders a customer for what appears to be no reason. An investigation into his life uncovers a statue that disappeared during the war. In flashback, we see Hector and fellow soldiers Stamps (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher), Bishop (Michael Ealy, Sleeper Cell), and Train (Omar Benson Miller, 8 Mile), all from the U.S. Army's all-black "Buffalo Soldiers" division, trapped near Tuscany during the 1944 invasion of Italy. There they meet a young boy named Antonio (Matteo Sciabordi) and attempt to protect him while they hide out in a village with local woman Renata (Valentina Cervi, War and Peace) to await a looming Nazi counterattack.
Spike Lee has always been an ambitious filmmaker, but with Miracle at St. Anna he has allowed his ambition to get the better of him. This is a worthy story that demands a simple, straightforward narrative but Lee can't seem to get out of his own film's way. The story is padded with far too many of the tangents and diversions that are characteristic of Lee's work. Here, however, instead of adding to the film, they actually detract from it by slowing it down and throwing off much of the timing. Lee is experimenting with a new genre for him -- the war movie -- and he apparently feels a sense of insecurity: for a film to be considered an epic, it seems he's convinced it must be of an epic length.
The problem is partly rooted in James McBride's script, which he based on his novel. McBride was clearly far too enamored of his novel to leave out any of his written scenes and so included an awful lot of unnecessary filler, including some rather pointless exchanges, a needlessly drawn-out framing device, and a love triangle that goes nowhere. The real blame, however, has to go to Lee. As director, he should have decided to trim out all of the filler and focus the film. There are easily four or five lengthy scenes that are well-written and directed, but add nothing to the overall film. These are exactly the kind of scenes that you usually see on DVDs as deleted scenes, with directors usually explaining that they were cut out because they slowed down the story. There are exchanges between Nazi soldiers that are either superfluous or merely repeat what other characters explain. There is a scene demonstrating the racism that the black soldiers experienced back home that might have been an excellent opportunity for characterization but instead just tells us what we already know. There's also the romantic tension between Stamps, Bishop, and Renata that, considering how it's resolved, could have been left out without making any difference at all. The whole opening and closing scenes are especially protracted. Why spend so much time fleshing out the characters of the cops and reporters if they're ultimately so peripheral to the real story?
Lee really botches the timing during the climax. This is a war film, so like most war films it naturally builds up to a climactic battle. Lee starts to do a good job of building up the tension, setting up the soldiers in place, showing them preparing, and laying out the geography. There's an especially gripping scene showing all the protagonists reciting the same prayer that is flawlessly edited. Inexplicably, however, he then wastes far too much time on tangents, like the love triangle and a lengthy dialogue between Bishop and Train about the true nature of God, that defuse the tension he has just so carefully built up. By the time the final battle starts, it's hard to really get caught up in it, even though it's shot and choreographed very well. Lee reveals a real talent for action, but he should have focused the preceding scenes better. Rather than a taut and gripping thriller, Miracle at St. Anna winds up as a meandering drama with some good scenes scattered throughout.
It would have been immensely worthwhile to hear Lee discuss the choices he made in making this film, but in a singularly misguided decision, Touchstone has issued this DVD with absolutely no extras. No commentary, no interviews, no history, nothing at all. For a film of this importance, with such pivotal subject matter and such a large and varied cast, this is simply inexcusable. Fans deserve a lot better than what they're getting here.
It's especially disappointing to see this film's flaws, because had this story been told well, it could have been a stellar work, easily on par with Lee's own Malcolm X. The actors are all first-rate. Because none, with the arguable exception of Luke, are household names, they become their characters rather than overshadowing them. The dialogue is gritty and realistic, capturing the time without whitewashing the prevailing attitudes of the era. Lee's visual direction is better than ever, full of striking imagery and capturing the action clearly and excitingly. The central mystery is cleverly revealed; by the end of the film, viewers will clearly understand why Hector did what he did and what the significance of the statue really was.
Though the DVD is bare-bones, at least the technical quality is top-notch. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is stunning, capturing the film's grainy and desaturated look perfectly, but also showing off spectacular vistas of the beautiful Italian countryside. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes in all three languages are equally superb. They make full use of the surrounds, giving the battle scenes extra punch without drowning out the dialogue while also adding ambient sound effects during the quieter scenes.
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is a truly heroic and unheralded story that deserves a great movie to tell it. This isn't it. There is a lot to like in Miracle at St. Anna, but it's smothered by far too much that's simply filler. Lee should have ruthlessly trimmed the fat, no matter how well-executed it is, to leave behind a far more focused and emotionally arresting experience. Viewers who watch this film will have to have a lot of patience for Lee's digressions and will have to do some mental editing of their own to make it more palatable. This, coupled with the complete lack of extras, makes it hard to recommend the DVD of Miracle at St. Anna to anyone who isn't already a Lee or war movie fan.
Miracle at St. Anna is found guilty of not knowing what to leave out. Touchstone, on the other hand, is found guilty of not including anything.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site