**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo, Omar Benson Miller
screenplay by James McBride, based on his novel
directed by Spike Lee
by Ian Pugh Beginning with a moment of vocalized contempt for the John Wayne-ification of World War II in popular culture, Miracle at St. Anna thoroughly establishes its primary aim to give credit where credit is due to the unsung black heroes of the era. Director Spike Lee brings a broader sense of humanism to the table as well, though, orchestrating innumerable moments of fear and sympathy across several languages to impress upon viewers that there were, indeed, honest-to-gosh people on each side of a conflict not typically remembered for its moral ambiguity. If it's been done before, considering that Valkyrie subtly co-opted righteous, intelligent rebellion as an exclusively Anglo-American invention just a few short months after St. Anna's release, it's something of a necessary evil. Yet the picture is finally done a near-fatal disservice by Lee's often-painful (and, some might say, trademark) didacticism, with plenty of telegraphed prophecies on hand to reiterate that faith is more important than religion and that the common link of humanity overrides any national divisions. Messages well worth repeating, no doubt, but the film feels the need to drive them home with talking heads spouting heavy-handed philosophical ruminations that subtly give the mind license to wander. Sure, whether or not God exists, we should all act like He does--what else ya got?
In 1983, post-office worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) brandishes a Luger on the job and kills a customer in cold blood. The subsequent investigation reveals that Hector has been keeping a priceless Italian bust, unseen since the war, in his closet. A cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a touch of little-boy-lost casting that somehow feels like a response to Brick's cutesy noir backdrop) goes looking for answers, but Hector only retreats into his mind--whereupon we flashback to Tuscany circa 1944, where Negron served as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, the U.S. Army's all-black 92nd Infantry Division. Following an unexpected run-in with the Nazis, four surviving members of the company--including resident gentle giant Train (Omar Benson Miller), who has befriended a wounded Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi)--are left waiting for backup by their unapologetically racist commanding officer (Walton Goggins). They seek aid in a nearby village at the home of a registered Fascist, and as tensions rise and the men plot their escape to safer ground, it's discovered that the boy is mysteriously connected to a group of ragtag soldiers in the local resistance movement.
Although its firefights are dynamically edited and unforgivingly straightforward, the war that Lee presents is primarily a psychological one. With the tone of the film deftly set by an early psych-out broadcast from Alexandra Maria Lara's Axis Sally (the one sequence, it's worth mentioning, in which Lee fetishistically indulges in the kind of aesthetics we associate with the period, or more specifically with 1940s Hollywood--think tendrils of cigarette smoke and chiaroscuro lighting), prejudice against African-Americans collides with knee-jerk distrust of the Italians and wholesale demonization of the Germans; they all arrive at a moment of harmony in sharing the existential crisis of living through a war none of them seem to have much stake in. A few flash-cuts across the familiar symbols of a Nazi officer's uniform during one extended atrocity imply that establishments are the real villain here--the trick is trying to extricate yourself from them, something at which you can't be guaranteed success. While Lee has always understood that some cultural boundaries are simply never going to be crossed, this time around his conclusions about our capacity to transcend them border on platitudinous. For all the wonderful interplay between Miller and Sciabordi as their characters find ways to bypass the language barrier, they're trapped by cliché plot developments that force them to see each other as omens from their respective systems of belief. And, good golly, it turns out that's not too far from the truth.
Miracle at St. Anna manages to fascinate whenever it pulls itself away from treating its characters as mere ideologues: no one ever really has to answer for the dead body in 1983 that sets events into retrospective motion--and, placed in direct contrast against the war casualties that precede/follow, the numerous moral quandaries it brings up are left dangling in a most intriguing fashion. Alas, for every motive it leaves for the viewer to parse, it has at least two scenes of show-and-tell dialogue to neatly tie up loose ends; the ultimate question is whether Lee needed two hours and forty minutes to accomplish so little. Irony of ironies, it appears that the stigma of Shut-your-face-gate has only succeeded in shelving Miracle at St. Anna in an ambiguous zone betwixt Clint Eastwood's own WWII epics: it's a more eloquent refutation of an uncritically united front than Flags of Our Fathers, but it's still a ways away from the heart-wrenching compassion of Letters from Iwo Jima.
Speaking of faith, Touchstone doesn't inspire much in bringing Miracle at St. Anna to DVD in a bare-bones release. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer typically accommodates the desaturated, purposefully grainy cinematography rather well, though there are moments when the misty colours are merely muted and shadow detail is almost opaque. Attendant DD 5.1 audio offers the pretense of atmosphere, but the ambient noise isn't particularly directional to that end. The disc opens with an anti-smoking ad and a Blu-ray promo, the two spots giving way to semi-forced trailers for Confessions of a Shopaholic, Blindness, and Doubt; a "Sneak Peeks" menu adds The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Happy-Go-Lucky to that list.
160 minutes; R; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1; CC; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Touchstone