Spike Lee loses the battles and the war in “Miracle at St. Anna,” a clunky, poorly constructed drama designed to spotlight the little-remarked role of black American soldiers in World War II. Clocking in at 160 minutes, this is a sloppy stew in which the ingredients of battle action, murder mystery, little-kid sentiment and history lesson don’t mix well. Nor is it remotely clear who the audience is meant to be; the R rating pretty much rules out younger students, and extensive subtitles will deter action fans, who would be bored anyway. Best B.O. will likely be in Italy, where most of the melodrama takes place.
Pic is a particular disappointment after Lee’s reputation-restoring previous feature, “Inside Man,” which saw the director working imaginatively within an established genre. Same can’t be said here, as Lee has imposed no discipline on novelist James McBride’s script, which trudges from digression to digression to the detriment of any dramatic focus.
It remains a wonder that no one, from Lee to the various producers and studio execs, demanded that someone whip this story into more sensible shape before the cameras rolled, so obvious are its excesses and indulgences. Yarn starts with a murder case — a sixtysomething black postal worker, a devout man and recipient of the Purple Heart, shoots a man who comes to his window to buy a stamp. News of his arrest, and the fact he is in possession of a piece of Italian statuary worth millions, has weird repercussions in Italy, whereupon the action flashes back to Tuscany, 1944, where the Yanks are putting the hard press on dug-in Nazis.
Focus falls on the Buffalo Soldiers, black soldiers within the 92nd Infantry division in the segregated American Army. A number of grunts are sent to ford a river beyond which Germans are thought to wait. The way they’re mowed down reinforces the notion that “Eleanor Roosevelt’s niggers,” as they are derided by racist white officers, are regarded as little more than cannon fodder. In one of the few successful touches, the troops’ river crossing is accompanied by a propaganda broadcast from Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara, in an outstanding reading), who goes on about how their country doesn’t care about them and even says the Nazis have nothing against the blacks.
Making it across the river and, shortly, up to the small medieval village of Colognora, are Second Staff Sergeant Aubrey Banks (Derek Luke); Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy); Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), the man charged with murder 40 years later; and PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller).
Train, a large man with little military discipline and a preoccupation with religious superstition, saves a 7-year-old boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and thereafter watches over him. This sort of heart-tugging, and very Italian, story strand hasn’t been seen in an American war movie in years, maybe even decades, and one can see why; it’s embarrassing.
The other three guys are made of sterner stuff, but the film comes down with a case of severe lethargy once the men hole up in the village. Issues surrounding a fascist father, his lovely daughter, Renata (Valentina Cerri), whom Bishop gets the hots for, internecine quarrels among the local partisans, and the wait to figure out where the Germans are reduce the picture to the speed of a lumbering tank; two successive scenes of dreadful slaughter put the nail in the coffin. A coda blatantly attempts to pull the heartstrings, but it’s not earned.
Beyond the dramatic deficiencies, the writing for character is not good, so that even at the protracted running time, the men don’t emerge as strongly etched individuals. Train stands out because of his size and blubbery vulnerability, Stamps is notable for his courage and ability to speak Italian, and Bishop is the randy, gold-toothed one — but fully dimensional they’re not.
Lee breaks up the slow flow by plugging in little episodes to dramatize discrimination, notably in a flashback in which German prisoners are allowed to eat in a Southern diner but black G.I.s are not. “I love Italy. I ain’t a nigger here,” one of them later says to further underline the point. Too bad the film wasn’t better written to make the sentiment implicit rather than needing to be said.
Production values are OK without being particularly notables, and Terence Blanchard’s score drones on virtually throughout. Lee’s early-career cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, handled second-unit chores.