Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: James McBride based on his novel.
Starring: Derek Luke (Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps), Michael Ealy (Sergeant Bishop Cummings), Laz Alonso (Corporal Hector Negron), Omar Benson Miller (Private First Class Samuel “Sam” Train), Matteo Sciabordi (Angelo Torancelli – The Boy), Pierfrancesco Favino (Peppi ”The Great Butterfly” Grotta), Valentina Cervi (Renata Salducci), John Turturro (Detective Antonio "Tony" Ricci), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tim Boyle), Kerry Washington (Zana Wilder), John Leguizamo (Enrico), D. B. Sweeney (Colonel Jack Driscoll), Robert John Burke (General Ned Almond), Omari Hardwick (Platoon Commander Huggs), Omero Antonutti (Ludovico Salducci), Sergio Albelli (Rodolfo Berelli), Lydia Biondi (Natalina), Michael K. Williams (frightened soldier), Christian Berkel (Eicholz), Jan Pohl (Hans Brundt), Alexandra Maria Lara (Mildred Gillars), Luigi Lo Cascio (Adult Angelo).
Spike Lee was very clear about his reasons for making Miracle at St. Anna – he was tired of American movies overlooking the contributions of black soldiers during WWII. Just two years prior to this film’s release, he got into a public spat with Clint Eastwood – about Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, about Iwo Jima, that had no black soldiers represented. To Lee, Miracle at St. Anna was meant to be a corrective of sorts – to finally tell the stories of black soldiers who fought and died for their country – a country Lee makes clear, didn’t treat them well at home. The goal is both admirable and necessary. Miracle at St. Anna though is a big, messy film – full of unnecessary diversions and subplots – the most egregious of which is unnecessary bookending scenes set in 1984. It is almost as if Lee wanted to counteract 70 years of movies in just one film – so the result is necessarily messy. I will say this though – I admire Lee’s efforts here, and the best things about the film truly are wonderful. A tighter film would have been better probably, but perhaps it would have been a little less of Spike Lee film, and a more typical war movie.
The film is mainly set in the waning days of WWII, in the Italian countryside. An all-black unit is one of many being tasked to advance on the Nazis, and take back control. After a bloody river crossing goes horribly wrong – in part because of a racist, white senior officer, who positioned himself well back from the front line, didn’t believe it when his black soldiers told them they made it to the other side of the river, and needed support, so he fired mortars that killed rather than helped his soldiers – four black soldiers are trapped on the other side of the river. Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) is the de facto leader – and has the most sense of the bunch. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) is a little bit of a hothead, just trying to survive. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso), a Puerto Rican, is the radio man – and actually speaks Italian. And then there is Private Train (Omar Benson Miller), a gentle giant of a man, who is a little slow, but also incredibly sweet. He saves a young Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) from a collapsed barn, and then pretty much adopts the boy. They will end up in a small, mountainside village, surrounded by Nazis who are closing in, with orders to capture one of them in order to confirm intelligence reports. The villagers are wary of them at first. The partisans are also close by – although after years, they are getting tired and frustrated.
The biggest mistake I think Lee makes in the film is the bookend scenes – that add little other than celebrity cameos and runtime to the film. In 1984, Harlem a now much older Negron, working at the Stamps window at the post office, sees someone he clearly knows, pulls out a German luger, and calmly shoots him in the chest. Negron refuses to answer anyone’s questions as to why he did it – but the mystery is deepened when they find a stone head from a bridge in Florence in his apartment. Eventually, all of these questions will be answered in the body of the film, but the rather slow opening of about 20 minutes is more boring than anything else – despite the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cub reporter, John Turturro as a hardened cop and John Leguizamo as, well, I’m not quite sure. The film ends with the resolution of this case – adding in Kerry Washington as a high powered lawyer for good measure – but these scenes don’t really go anywhere, or add anything to the narrative. They’re just kind of there.
Lee’s ambitions get him trouble elsewhere as well. It’s as if he wants to give everyone a fair shake – so we get stories of the partisans, of Germans – both good and bad – the villagers, etc. He also adds in some weird, magical realism touches – how the old man in the village gets his power back for example. A love triangle of sorts develops between Stamps, Bishop and the beautiful Renata (Valentina Cervi) – the only villager who speaks English. It is resolved, but not in a way that makes sense (Renata makes a choice, but the movie seems to have no idea why she makes the choice she does. Other diversions work better – like a flashback to when the men are in training in the South, and head into town to get something to eat. They see German POWs being fed by at the restaurant, but its owners tells them to go around back- whites only.
There is a lot of great stuff in Miracle at St. Anna as well. The opening battle on the river is bloody and intense – not Saving Private Ryan great, but pretty damn great just the same. The final battle, in the streets of that small village, is equally as intense – and even more emotional, as by know we have gotten to know the characters. Derek Luke and Michael Ealy are both very good as Stamps and Bishop – they have a kind of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X dynamic between them. Omar Benson Miller has the kind of role that can go horribly wrong – but he makes it work.
So yes, it is certainly true that Miracle at St. Anna is a flawed film – a deeply flawed film. But like almost all of Lee’s films, it is flawed because of its ambition – flawed because Lee is trying to do too much, and he is swinging for the fences. That seems to be the only way he knows how to make movies – and bless him for that. I’ll always prefer a film that goes big, and doesn’t quite make it, then a film that plays it safe, and succeeds on its more modest terms.

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