Unfocused Miracle at St. Anna Misses the Target
- Friday, September 26, 2008
DVD Release Date: February 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: September 26, 2008
Rating: R (strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity)
Run Time: 160 min.
Director: Spike Lee
Actors: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Leguizamo, Kerry Washington, D.B. Sweeney
Back in my journalism school days, one of the best pieces of career advice that I actually remember writing down was that “every writer needs a good editor.”
And even though Spike Lee didn’t actually pen the script for his new racially charged passion project, Miracle at St. Anna (it was the work of James McBride, who wrote the novel by the same name), that sage advice would’ve benefited his efforts enormously.
Clocking in at 160 minutes, which would’ve been fine if the film had actually warranted it (see Gone with the Wind or The Lord of the Rings), Miracle at St. Anna wants to be so many things—a rewriting of history, a war movie, a murder mystery, even a heartstrings-tugging melodrama—that it doesn’t do anything particularly well. If anything, the bloated effort marked by lackluster pacing, subpar acting and an overbearing musical score that’s never utilized at the right moments, feels like a tour of duty for the audience, especially after Lee’s promising foray into big budget fare in 2006 with Inside Man, a smart, satisfying crime caper.
In fact, it’s probably the success of Inside Man which helped guarantee the funding for St. Anna, a movie with few marquee names that also serves as Lee’s response to a widely reported feud with Clint Eastwood about the omission of African American servicemen in his 2006 war pics Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Hoping to right the wrongs in the way he does best (i.e. shock value), St. Anna tells the story of four members of the Buffalo Soldiers in the 92nd infantry who served in Italy during World War II.
Before we actually get to meet these unsung heroes, however, there’s an awkward story set-up that completely shifts the tone. In the film’s first scene, there’s an elderly black man kicking back and watching a John Wayne movie in his Harlem apartment. When Wayne’s character, a well-respected sergeant, instructs his Caucasian-only troops not to quit until the war is won, the man absently mutters to himself, “We fought that war too.”
Not long after watching the film, the same elderly war veteran, does the unthinkable. While selling stamps behind the window of the local post office, he pulls out a gun and shoots an Italian man right in the face. So why has a war hero with no previous criminal record and a Purple Heart on a shelf at home to prove it, committed such a heinous crime? Well, that’s what a newbie reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hopes to get to the bottom of. After searching the man’s home, the reporter discovers an unexpected clue in a Macy’s bag in his closet—an Italian relic of a woman’s head made of stone—that ends up making international headlines.
Before anyone can figure out what exactly these developments mean, we’ve jumped to a flashback scene of gritty battle where we see the four Buffalo Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany. Sent to cross the Serchio River and not exactly expected to make it (they’re actually meant to get blown up to snuff out the enemy), they end up surviving and having to hide out in a Tuscan village.
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