DVD Release Date:  February 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  September 26, 2008
Rating:  R (strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity)
Genre:  Drama/War/Thriller
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.

While a couple of the Buffalo Soldiers are presented with appealing-enough character traits that ultimately endear the audience to them—namely Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), a decidedly moral, upright man and Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) a cuddly, lovable dunce with a heart of gold who even put his troop’s lives in danger by rescuing an injured eight-year-old Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi)—these guys are drawn with such broad and predictable strokes that viewers barely get beyond their surface, even though they’re the focus of the story.

As a commentary on racism, Miracle at St. Anna often falls short with depictions of prejudice being limited to predictable displays of gratuitous name calling from their ignorant, all- white superiors and obvious declarations from the African American characters about “feeling more free in a foreign country than at home.” For an issue so incredibly complex and volatile, the only real shock value is that the discussion feels so dumbed down in a movie that’s nearly three-hours long.

With a little editing, not to mention far stronger takeaway value and a tighter script, Miracle at St. Anna could’ve been so much more buzz-worthy and intriguing. But as it stands, it’s flashy and forgettable, probably not the culture-shaping statement that Lee was hoping for.
      
CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Alcohol abuse is depicted.
  • Language/Profanity:  Countless racial epithets, multiple instances where Jesus’ name is taken in vain and plenty of your standard-issue profanity litters the dialogue.
  • Sex/Nudity:  The “some sexual content” warning mostly revolves around one extended, soap opera-esque interracial sex scene with glimpses of female nudity. An earlier scene shows a scantily clad women wearing a paper-thin nightgown in hopes of seducing her lover. Also, Sergeant Stamps turns down the repeated sexual advances of Renata (Valentina Cervi).
  • Violence:  In the opening scene, a postal worker shoots a customer in the face. Later, the extended battle scenes are gritty, shockingly realistic and extensive as soldiers are shot, blown up and tortured in a variety of ways. A movie definitely not for the squeamish, the soldiers’ bloody remains are often shown close up afterward. African American soldiers are also verbally abused repeatedly.

 

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.