In Miracle At St Anna, based on James McBride's novel, four soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division (from back left, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Laz Alonso) get trapped in a small Tuscan village after one risks his life to save a wounded boy (Matteo Sciabordi, front left).
In Miracle At St Anna, based on James McBride's novel, four soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division (from back left, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Laz Alonso) get trapped in a small Tuscan village after one risks his life to save a wounded boy (Matteo Sciabordi, front left). David Lee/Touchstone
Miracle At St. Anna
- Director: Spike Lee
- Genre: Action, Drama
- Running Time: 160 minutes
Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity.
Looking for a miracle: Sam Train (Miller) and Angelo Torancelli (Sciabordi) struggle to survive Nazi-occupied Italy.
Looking for a miracle: Private First Class Sam Train (Benson Miller) and Angelo Torancelli (Sciabordi) must struggle to survive Nazi-occupied Italy. David Lee/Touchstone
Let's start by agreeing that Spike Lee was in large part right when he criticized Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films for doing what American war movies have done for decades — leaving black soldiers out of the story.
Hollywood has made very little effort to explore the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II. And if segregation in that era's armed forces provides Tinseltown with an excuse, it is long past time for a remedy.
So a movie about the exploits of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, which landed in Italy in 1944, would seem to be just the ticket. But Lee's adaptation of the novel Miracle at St. Anna, inspired by the exploits of the 92nd, proves problematic.
It tells of a unit caught behind enemy lines; their white American commander, refusing to believe they've made the progress against enemy troops they say they have, shells their position. The result is a bloodbath that leaves a river running red with the blood of perhaps a dozen black soldiers.
For Lee, somehow, this sets up a story that almost immediately lurches into moments of broad comedy and even broader sentiment.
Most of the latter involve a big, superstitious soldier named Train (Omar Benson Miller) and a shell-shocked Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) he befriends. When the boy starts calling his protector a "chocolate giant" — he even licks Train to see if he tastes like cocoa — well, at that point the director's headed into territory so precious it's hard to find a way back to the film's more serious themes.
Some of those themes are familiar from Lee's other films, while others — the suggestion, for instance, that the Nazis appreciated the capabilities of these black troops more than their white commanders did — are freshly provocative.
But nearly all the film's thematic points get scattered as screenwriter James McBride, adapting his own novel, lets the story drift off in six directions at once, filling the screen with stereotyped German creeps and peppy Italian resistance fighters, a love triangle involving two American soldiers and an Italian siren (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy and Valentina Cervi), two dueling sets of religious superstitions and one magical resurrection.
There's also an '80s murder mystery that bookends the rest of the story (with cameos by John Turturro, John Leguizamo and Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a flashback within the film's central flashback to show us the discrimination faced by the soldiers in America. All that, plus an overwrought, tear-stained epilogue.
Even in a film that clocks in at a quasi-epic 2 hours and 40 minutes, that's just too much narrative. And matters aren't helped by the fact that Lee, who has never staged battle sequences before, hasn't quite got the rhythms or camera angles right.
There aren't actually that many battles in Miracle at St. Anna, as it happens, but when they do crop up, the explosions seem to come out of nowhere — a little like that miracle the title refers to — leaving the audience as disoriented as the soldiers, and a good deal less engaged.