That Spike Lee sometimes is Spike Lee’s only obstacle is not entirely a fault. Without a forceful, outspoken personality, Lee wouldn’t be half the incisive, passionate director he has become today.
When Lee can get past his magnanimous self, his success at wrestling a tag team of American culture, history and racial identity is unmatched in ambition and power. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Inside Man, 25th Hour, Summer of Sam and Do the Right Thing are among the best films of the last 20 years.
Miracle at St. Anna could have joined those ranks had Lee just been able to forget about Clint Eastwood — who has nothing, and everything, to do with the film.
Lee and Eastwood famously clashed earlier this year after Lee’s comment about a lack of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers or Letters From Iwo Jima. Those 2006 films representedEastwood’s two-film depiction of Iwo Jima from both sides of combat.
St. Anna was in the works long before the brouhaha, but the editing room’s end result shows it weighed too heavily on Lee’s mind. He tries to prove a point by telling, not showing. Throwing down resulted in a film badly in need of tuning up.
Even before Lee’s color commentary, there are too many elements crammed into this war film’s margins — romance, mild comedy, time shifts, even the supernatural.
All of that might work with the natural point-of-view changes and chapter breaks of James McBride’s novel (which he adapted). On screen, it’s jarring as the mid-sentence shifts in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Lee made the same mishmash work in Summer of Sam, but that captured the cacophony of a sultry season. Here, he’s trying to evoke rah-rah 1950s and 1960s WWII films with the modern slant of racial equality. It’s an indictment more piercing in St. Anna’s scenes of wartime dialogue than in goober-racist drama that comes before it. A scene in a soda shop may just be among Lee’s most groaningly obvious.
McBride uses the actual Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre as a springboard for his story. Sadly, its flashback structure does little to stem predictability.
The film opens in the 1980s, when postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) shoots, in broad daylight, a man buying stamps in his line. The weapon is a Ruger pistol. Odder still is what’s in Negron’s apartment — the severed head of a priceless Italian statue missing since the 1940s.
When a cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, embarrassingly similar to Jimmy Olsen) seeks Hector’s story, it’s recalled in flashback. Hector was one of many Buffalo Soldiers sent to invade Italy. After one German ambush and a friendly-fire incident, only Hector, righteous leader Stamps (Derek Luke), lecherous Bishop (Michael Ealy) and simpleminded Train (Omar Benson Miller) are the only ones left standing.
The troops’ retreat to a small Italian village positions them for a standoff against Nazis and duplicitous Italian partisan fighters, as well as their own ideological differences.
Lee shows a knack for combat scenes, as well as the brutality and brotherhood of man. Opportunism, barbarism and hope dramatically mix in the most piercing, cathartic scenes, nearly all of which come in the final hour. Performances are good across the board, particularly from the always-magnetic Luke.
Lee eventually stiff-arms himself out of the way. It’s just a pity that the myriad jukes and fakes that come before aren’t more entertaining or resounding.