I really wanted to like this movie from Spike Lee about a Buffalo Soldier regiment in World War II. Black soldiers haven't gotten nearly the credit they deserve, and they've fought in every war since the American Revolution. Plus, the concept of this film really seemed the stuff of cinema: four members of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division become trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a psychically wounded Italian boy. It sounded so different . . . but "Miracle at St. Anna" turned out to be so similar to every other war movie that came before it. Clichés abound, and a melodramatic script isn't helped one bit by camera trickery that magnifies the melodrama rather than adding style, ala "Gladiator" or "Traffic." Even an ancient stone head reportedly worth millions of dollars doesn't carry the symbolic weight that was intended. That's because, in part, too many other things weigh this film down.
Genre confusion, for one thing. "Miracle at St. Anna" can't decide whether it's a psychological study for "going postal" in civilian life," a standard heroic war movie, a cross-cultural film about four men and a boy, a religious movie, or a political statement about African Americans. And so the flashy camerawork only serves to illuminate the synapses that just aren't being bridged in our brains. Not surprisingly, the tone of the film also seems to meander.
It all begins with a sequence in which a postal worker, years after the war, shoots a customer at his window with the German luger he brought back from the war. Did he snap, or was he carrying out a promise? The war material is handled in flashback, with the postal incident framing the story, but not as neatly as it could have. But the biggest sins of this "miracle" film are the dialogue and clichés that push this into the same level of melodrama we saw in the first wave of patriotic WWII movies. Lee may be doing this on purpose-certainly his postal worker watches John Wayne give orders in "The Longest Day"--but it's tough to comment on a genre while also embracing all of its conditions, shortcomings and all.
"Miracle" tells the story of four American soldiers who make it across the river during a savage battle and become separated from the rest of their unit. When they report their position, the white commander doesn't believe them, and we see the same sort of racial undercurrents throughout the film. So the men press on. There's Train (Omar Benson Miller), who carries a 450 year old prima vera head from a statue that was blown up with the bridge it adorned, convinced it has magical properties to protect them and make him Samson-strong. Then there's Bishop (Michael Early), who wears a do-rag (is that historically accurate??) and "sets the Negroes back 100 years" with his crude behavio (Laz Alonso); Stamps (Derek Luke), the cool-headed one who assumes leadership; and Hector (Laz Alonso), the Puerto Rican who went postal in Harlem around Christmas, 1983.
Like the gentle giant in "The Green Mile," it's Train who's the most sympathetic character--the one who picks up an injured Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and carries him to safety, and who convinces the rest they need to take him to "his people," which ends up being a little Italian village surrounded by Germans. Here, in a brief oasis from the war, the men enjoy being treated with respect and basic human dignity in ways that make them question fighting for a country that doesn't treat them the same way. There they meet Renata (Valentina Cervi), a woman whose husband is away fighting the Germans, and "The Great Butterfly," an underground leader (Pierfrancesco Favino), whose lives briefly intersect with theirs.
But as much as I remember that statue head and certain striking scens--as when Renata is unfazed when one of the men catches her undressing, or when Axis Sally broadcasts over loudspeakers to the Buffalo Soldiers and drives home the very points that cause them concern--the bulk of this film is made up of clichés, tired writing, and shopworn cinematographic tricks. What was once shocking, like an entire arm that's blown off with blood squirting, now seems self-conscious or even oddly comic. James McBride created the screenplay from his own novel, so if the writing disappoints he has no one to blame but himself. Everything seems just a little overdone, from the dialogue and special effects to the background music, which intrudes as much as those squirting limbs and detectives who seem like throwbacks to the Forties. I found it ultimately a hard film to watch--not because of the subject matter, but because this was a film that really could have, should have been much better than it is.
"Miracle at St. Anna" looks very good in 1080p, though there are a number of scenes that are deliberately grainy or sequences in which the speed of the film and number of frames have been manipulated to produce a stop-motion effect, and in those instances you can't really appreciate Hi-Def. But the quieter moments in town really shine, with a high level of detail, bright colors, and true-looking skin tones. The 3-D effect is also pleasing, and "Miracle" is a well-lit film, which becomes apparent on the Blu-ray. "Miracle at St. Anna" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and I detected no apparent problems with the transfer, no artifacts.
The audio is a booming English 5.1 DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) with additional options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. The featured soundtrack fills the room with a crisp treble and mid-tones and a bass that rumbles ever-so-slightly. There's nice distribution across the speakers, with a particularly wide spread across the front speakers that makes the dialogue seem rich. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There are very few extras. In "Deeds Not Words," Lee and author McBride interview African Americans who served as Tuskeegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers, and in this roundtable session there's more focus than either Lee or McBride managed in the film. It's a fascinating little bonus feature. A second feature, "The Buffalo Soldier Experience" offers more first-hand accounts packaged in a mini-history. Both features run in the neighborhood of 20 minutes. Other than those two features there are only a handful of deleted scenes.
I like war movies and much of what Spike Lee has done, but "Miracle at St. Anna" disappoints. It tries to be too many different things, with the only constant being a self-consciousness that never lets you forget you're watching a film rather than stepping back in time to experience life as a Buffalo Soldier. In the end, it's just not as satisfying as you'd have hoped.