Precious few films have dealt even tangentially with the stories of black American soldiers in World War II, which is why Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" is doubly disappointing. Clocking in at 160 minutes, this interminable movie comes across like a rough cut. Perhaps Lee believed its length would give it gravitas. The opposite is true.
What Lee and screenwriter James McBride, adapting his novel, have essentially done is graft every World War II movie cliché featuring nonblacks onto a movie about the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black 92nd Infantry division of the segregated US Army. In the standard World War II movie – "A Walk in the Sun" is the template – we follow a platoon of diverse soldiers as they wisecrack their way across the battlefield. The Italian, the Pole, the Roman Catholic, the Jew, the bookworm, the ladies' man, the coward, the hero, the rube, the city slicker – they all get their time in the sun.
In "Miracle at St. Anna," which is mainly set in 1944, four members of the infantry are trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany: the upright 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke); the randy, gold-toothed Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy); the hulking, childlike Pfc. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller); and Corp. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), who we first see in the film's framing device 40 years hence as a postal worker who inexplicably shoots a man who comes to his window. The wartime flashback from this incident is supposed to explain his actions, although this fact is quickly forgotten, since Hector is easily the least interesting of the quartet.
Each man is a stand-in for a particular racial prototype. Aubrey, for example, is an honorable citizen who believes in working within society; Bishop is an oversexed hound dog who makes a beeline for an attractive Tuscan local (Valentina Cervi); Sam, nicknamed the "chocolate giant," is such a hayseed that he seems stunted. He's a bit like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men." In the film's most egregious and annoying bit of hankie-waving, Sam rescues a shellshocked 7-year-old boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and guards him, come what may.
If anybody but Lee had made this movie, the portrayal of these men – of Sam, in particular – would have invited charges of racial stereotyping. Equally stereotypical is the portrayal of the few white soldiers whom we see, particularly the white racist officers, who refer to the men as "Eleanor Roosevelt's niggers." Weren't there a few white military men who cringed at the segregation they were enforcing?
The early battle sequences are nothing much but they're far better than the static, talky scenes where the men, holed up in a village, connect with local partisans. Boredom seems a greater threat than bullets. Lee must be aware of this because, at every opportunity, he layers Terence Blanchard's lushly bland music onto the soundtrack as a diversion.
Lee owes a great debt to everything from "Saving Private Ryan" to Roberto Rossellini's "Paisan," but the didacticism of "Miracle of St. Anna" is all his own. His motto might be: Don't dramatize a message, tell it. And so one of the soldiers tells us, "I love Italy. I ain't a nigger here." To take another example, we are presented with an entirely gratuitous and poorly staged flashback-within-a-flashback showing German prisoners eating in a Southern diner barred to the black soldiers. Does this 160-minute movie really need this digression, complete with retaliatory payback, in order to point up the obvious? Must we be taught that racism exists?
Lee's previous movie "Inside Man" was a swift and reasonably entertaining crime thriller that was also his most commercially lucrative film ever. Its success suggested that Lee, despite the pander and bluster of his reputation, was best at making genre movies unencumbered by ideology. (He's also an excellent documentarian.) But Lee is back to his old form in "Miracle in St. Anna," which for the most part plays up all that is bad about him as a filmmaker and adds a few new mediocre touches as well, like the religiosity that descends upon the movie in its final moments with all the spirituality of a Hallmark greeting card.
Whatever miracle occurred at St. Anna never made it to the screen. Grade: C- (Rated R for strong war violence, language, and some sexual content and nudity.)