Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee's attempt at a war picture, was a bigger bomb than any that was dropped during WWII. My god, that’s a lousy metaphor. Unfortunately, Lee’s movie doesn’t deserve much better.
I’m not a big Spike Lee fan. Based on his box office receipts, most people aren’t. Other than Inside Man, which was an enjoyable straight ahead thriller; he hasn’t made a popular movie, well, ever. Critics generally like him, although they didn’t like Miracle at St. Anna and for good reason.
Lee’s attempt to tell a story about black soldiers in World War II is a meandering, overlong mess. Using a script from James McBride, who adapted his own novel, the director can’t seem to figure out what the story should focus on to make an entertaining and powerful film. Instead he focuses on anything and everything, often in such a heavy handed way that any power the story might have contained is diluted.
McBride’s script follows four soldiers from the all-black 92nd Infantry Division (the Buffalo Soldiers), who are cut off behind German lines in occupied Italy. Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop (Michael Ealy), Negron (Laz Alonso), and Train (Omar Benson Miller) take refuge in a small Italian village along with a boy Train rescues who maybe talks to dead people.
While in the village, every possible thing that could happen in a war movie does. Stamps and Bishop clash over a local woman (Valentina Cervi); soul searching occurs on why the soldiers should fight for a country that doesn’t want them; incompetent officers back at headquarters screw things up; the local partisans fight the Germans and each other since some of them are fascists; a German soldier is being pursued by other German soldiers for reasons unknown. Nothing is left out and some of the secondary characters are so slightly introduced (even the four soldiers aren’t given much of an intro) that I wondered why they bothered to include their sections. Oh, and that ignores that the whole story is a flashback and the movie opens and closes with a murder, a police investigation, a news reporter looking for a story, a stolen artifact worth millions, and a sixty second inexplicable cameo by John Leguizamo and a woman with really, really big hair.
I’m not saying that a 100 minute version of Miracle at St. Anna would be any better than the 160 minute effort Lee produced. The performances by the four leads are good; even Miller’s not quite right in the head character goes from annoying to more interesting once the movie gets settled in the village. It’s just that Lee isn't subtle about anything. A character can’t watch a John Wayne movie on television and see all the white faces while his Purple Heart sits nearby; he has to actually say “we were there, too.” Two characters have to actually talk about how they are more at home with the Italians than in their own country (even though it’s obvious from what we see) or make statements about how the army doesn’t appreciate them or what they’ve done for the war. It has to be obvious and stated as bluntly as possible.
The visuals are good, although Lee shoots the violent battle scenes, which are minor when you consider most recent war movies, in the same slightly grainy hand held style we’ve seen used to better effect in Saving Private Ryan and many other films. The music, by regular Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard, is also annoyingly unsubtle. Bombastic and distracting are probably the closest descriptors that come to mind. So, again, a shorter movie may not have been any better.
Spike Lee often becomes a lightning rod on his films. I could probably spend more time blaming James McBride for his script, which is the basis for this bloated film, but Lee is the one criticizing other directors for their efforts at telling World War II stories. Lee could have gotten the knife out and made a tighter and more interesting movie that might have convinced people to actually get out and see this in theaters. They stayed away for good reason and now on DVD, you should, too.
I’m not sure who to blame for this lousy DVD release of Miracle at St. Anna. I guess if the movie were any good, this release would be more irritating. There is nothing included on the disc but the movie. No commentary, no extras, no documentaries on the Buffalo Soldiers, no bonus copies of Girl 6 or She Hate Me. Nothing. Is that Lee’s fault or Touchstone Home Entertainment’s fault? It doesn’t really matter; there is nothing on the disc and that means that there is nothing to redeem the bad movie.
The Blu-ray does contain deleted scenes and two documentaries about the experience of the 92nd Infantry in World War II. The material does exist. If the goal is to get you to shell out the extra $5 and get the Blu-ray, that’s fine, except not everyone has Blu-ray. Bah, whatever.
The transfer to 2.35 to 1 widescreen and the sound are very good. That’s about all I can say about the disc since that’s all that is there. Oh and some trailers. Yippee.