Touchstone Pictures // 2008 // 160 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 10th, 2009
The untold story of courage and brotherhood.
In his long and storied career Spike Lee has done many things, but until 2008's Miracle at St. Anna he had never directed a war film. Judging from the anemic response from critics and the general public, many hope he never does so again. So, was Lee's contribution to the ever-expanding World War II cinematic canon really so bad?
In 1983, Hector (Laz Alonso, Jarhead), an elderly post-office cashier, pulls out a gun and shoots dead a seemingly harmless customer. The cashier won't say why he did it, and the mystery deepens when authorities find an antique head of a statue worth an estimated $2 million in a closet in Hector's apartment.
Flash back to WWII, and Hector and a group of three other soldiers from the all-black 92nd infantry division are trapped near a small Tuscan village during the Allies' operations in Italy in 1943. With Hector are: Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher), Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy, Barbershop), and Private Class Train (Omar Benson Miller, The Express), a giant simpleton with a heart of gold. In fact, Train risks his life to save a nine-year-old Italian boy. The group then enters the village with the boy, where they befriend villagers, alienate others, fight Germans, and try to reunite with the rest of their division.
Spike Lee is not one of the most intriguing directors working today just because his films are provocative; nor because several of his movies, notably Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and The 25th Hour, are great. What makes Lee's career especially fascinating is that he's also capable of incredible misfires. While Girl 6 and Summer of Sam are both disappointing, She Hate Me is probably the worst film ever made by a respectable director. That said, I remember hearing some halfhearted defenses of She Hate Me which were something along the lines of "Only a great filmmaker could make a movie this bad." While that doesn't apply to Miracle at St. Anna, this is still a movie where great talent is evident, yet it doesn't work.
The first problem is the story. There is a cohesive plot somewhere in this film, but it's buried somewhere amidst two-and-a-half hours of war melodrama and overbearing social commentary. Miracle at St. Anna meanders and digresses so often it's like watching a test screening where you know the film's going to shed 30 or 40 or even 50 minutes before being released. Yet somehow, there's 20 additional minutes in deleted scenes on the Blu-ray disc.
The other big problem is the cast. My guess is that Lee went with largely unknown actors due to budget constraints and a lack of big-name young black talent. While some of these young actors are impressive, particularly Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Omar Benson Miller both don't seem up to the task. Luke is just awkward, while Miller is too broad as the gentle giant Train. He plays Train like an almost supernatural being, a simpleton who spreads nothing but goodwill in the midst of one of the most harrowing times of WWII. Sometimes a scene can only be only as good as its worst actor, as is the case here, where Luke and Miller bring undue critical attention to themselves, distracting from the drama.
That said, perhaps the mediocre acting can also be blamed on a small budget for such an ambitious project, which surely wouldn't allow for much rehearsal time or numerous takes. Though that likely compromised the performances, it does make one appreciate Lee's talent anew. Though Miracle at St. Anna is a misfire, it is a great-looking film that doesn't spare on the war scenes. In a time in which a straightforward comedy like Yes Man can cost $70 million, Lee should be applauded for creating an ambitious period piece for $45 million.
Lee's feat is that much more evident with the pristine picture on the Blu-ray disc. Even the dull colors of World War II seem vibrant in 1080p. The film was largely shot on location in Italy, which provides some majestic scenery and strikingly authentic Italian villages. I don't know if there are actually townships in Italy that haven't been upgraded in sixty-five years, but these cracked and moldering buildings look like they're in an actual war zone. Regardless of the quality of the drama, Miracle at St. Anna is a beautiful and breathtaking film to watch.
The sound is strong, but sometimes rankling. The film has multiple battle scenes, and the bombastic gunfire and rockets are used to great effect with a five-speaker surround sound. However, there must have been a problem with the mixing. With the volume turned just up high enough to hear the dialogue, the explosions come in so loud they can make your teeth rattle (or, in my case, wake up a sleeping infant in the next room, repeatedly). I would turn the volume down during the explosions then have to turn it back up again whenever someone spoke. Now I'm sure some people like scaring their neighbors with loud gunfire, but I prefer to stay on good relations with mine.
There is a substantial amount of extras on the Blu-ray edition of Miracle at St. Anna that are exclusive to this release. The first is "Deeds Not Words," is a roundtable discussion between Lee, James McBride (who wrote the novel and screenplay for Miracle at St. Anna), and veterans of the real 92nd Buffalo Soliders division. The second is "The Buffalo Solider Experience," a recounting of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and their generally positive relations with Italian villagers in 1944. Both of these featurettes run about 20 minutes, and are helpful context for the film. In fact, it might be a good idea to watch these before watching Miracle at St. Anna. Then there are the 20 minutes of deleted scenes, nine in total. Lee's film already runs long, and not surprisingly these scenes were cut for good reason.
Though there have been complaints about the film's historical accuracy, it seems like Lee and McBride made good-faith efforts to recreate the historical elements of a controversial period as best they could. With so many films blatantly reinventing even modern history (check out the true story behind Frost/Nixon for example) this film deserves kudos.
Miracle at St. Anna is an impressively ambitious film, especially considering its budget, but its plot digresses and meanders too often to create a compelling story. In addition, the lead actors give uneven performances, which further prevent viewers from enjoying the movie. It's a misfire for Spike Lee, but an admirable one.
Guilty of poor, or almost nonexistent, editing. The film's only hope for commutation is a rare release of a "truncated cut," instead of the far more common "extended cut."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site