Film: Miracle at St. Anna

Film auteurs with impressive artistic track records often get away with things that other directors can’t, the relaxed oversight afforded by their names making for more indulgent film-making. Such is the case with Spike Lee in his recent WWII epic, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), which I found  an interesting, flawed, and yet powerful movie. It’s a structural mess, and I felt at first that it needed a ruthless editor, but I’m also kind of glad it didn’t get one, for however imperfect the film may be, I suspect it’s much more interesting for being so all over the place.

Based on a novel by James McBride (who also scripted), Miracle at St. Anna tells the story of four soldiers — played by Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Miller Benson, all very good — from one of the first black combat units to serve in the U.S. Army. The four men get trapped behind enemy lines during an aborted offensive into northern Italy in 1944. Surrounded by German forces, the unit is torn in several different directions: by a young, shellshocked boy who befriends them, by the local Italian civilians, by their own distant, bigoted white officers, and by the anti-fascist partisans in the area.

It all adds up, if somewhat clumsily, to a tragic tale of heroism and sacrifice, with some real heart to it. But oh, how many problems I had with it along the way. The largest issue is that it seems to be trying to be too many films at once: an action epic, a flashback mystery, a love triangle, a tragic history lesson, and a tale of spying and betrayal, among others. The film shifts gears constantly, with the central heroes disappearing from the stage for long, momentum-killing side plots; unexpected tangents to the German and partisan points of view; flashback framing device connecting the men to a crime committed in 1983; a flashback within a flashback to the unit’s training…you get the idea. It’s all connected, which is all to the good, and most of it even amounts to something, but the elements are joined pretty haphazardly.

Lee’s visual sense is as distinctive as ever, and if there are a few self-consciously artsy, slow-motion shots trying too hard, there are also striking images and gorgeous vistas. Most welcome is the forgotten history of the film: indeed, steeped as I am in World War II lore, the broader texts don’t generally tell you much about the Buffalo Soldiers who served in combat (certainly central to Lee’s interest), nor do they focus on the late 1944 campaigns in northern Italy (largely dealt with as a sideshow to the France invasion, historically). The politics and the historical detail — from the attitudes of the war-weary Italian civilians, to the fatalistic German soliders struggling to take their adamant, deluded officers seriously, to the racism in the American armed forces — all feels authentic and accurate. Lee tends to pound home his racial message with a heavy, blunt instrument at times, but it doesn’t make that message any less important or necessary. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that a film so concerned with equality would so dismissively treat its female characters — represented chiefly by Valentina Cervi as an Italian civilian who becomes a divisive love triangle point among the men, one of the film’s less-necessary subplots. Sadly, poor female representation isn’t that uncommon in war films, but you would hope for more here.

So yes, there’s a lot going on in this one — ultimately, I think too much — but some of it is quite good, and its many odd choices make it a consistently surprising and interesting film. Moreover, it’s winningly heartfelt, and I have to admit that it’s final moments got me. Obviously with reservations, but I’d recommend it, especially for history buffs.

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