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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Filmmaker Spike Lee made news earlier this year when he criticized Clint Eastwood. He complained that black soldiers were largely missing from Eastwood's two films about Iwo Jima. Now, Spike Lee has his own World War II movie hitting theaters - it's called "Miracle at St. Anna." Critic Bob Mondello says you could view the film as a corrective.

BOB MONDELLO: Let's start by agreeing that Spike Lee is in large part right. 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 a partial excuse, it's long past time for a remedy. 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, this particular movie about the 92nd is problematic as it moves from a grimly shot massacre that leaves a river running red with the blood of perhaps a dozen black soldiers to this moment.

(Soundbite of the movie "Miracle at St. Anna")

U: Ohh, oh Lord, oh. I'm coming up yonder. Meet me, Jesus. Oh, bishop, they got you, too.

U: No.

U: Yes, we're dead, bishop. Bishop, we're dead.

U: Listen to me. No, listen to me. You was dead, OK. But I brung you back. Now, you ain't dying until I get my money. You owe me $1400. Look here, go check out that haystack.

U: What in the world?

MONDELLO: That haystack looks like a straw-covered dunce cap and is scooting towards a barn door. Now, I can imagine a context in which that dialogue and even the scooting haystack could feel tonally right, but immediately after a deadly battle isn't it. It sets up the characters, especially a big dim galoot named Train, as principally comic, which they aren't really, and a little later when Train befriends a shell-shocked Italian boy...

(Soundbite of the movie "Miracle at St. Anna")

BLOCK: (As Angelo Torancelli) (Italian spoken)

MONDELLO: And the boy calls his protector a "chocolate giant" and licks him to see if he tastes like cocoa - well, now Spike Lee has taken us into territory so precious, it's hard to find your way back to the film's more serious content. That content includes themes that are familiar from Lee's other films, the discrimination the soldiers experience in segregated America for instance. And other notions that are freshly provocative; say, the suggestion that the Nazis appreciated the capabilities of these black troops more than their white commanders did. But nearly all of these points get scattered and sidelined as James McBride, adapting his own novel, lets the story drift off in six directions at once.

He gives us stereotyped German creeps and peppy Italian resistance fighters, a love triangle, flashbacks within flashbacks. Two dueling sets of religious superstitions, an unconvincing murder mystery that bookends the rest of the story, and even a magical resurrection. Though the film clocks in an epic two hours and 40 minutes, that's just too much narrative. And it's not helped by the fact that Lee has never staged battle sequences before and hasn't quite got the rhythms or camera angles right. There aren't a lot of battles in "Miracle at St. Anna," but when they crop up, their explosions seems 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. I'm Bob Mondello.

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