Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 2, 2009)
Throughout a long and varied career, Spike Lee has made many kinds of films, but 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna takes him into new territory: the war film. The flick examines African-American soldiers during World War II, though it starts in 1983 with a shocking event. An elderly postal clerk named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) abruptly shoots a customer (Sergio Albelli) who comes to his window.
Cub reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to find an interesting angle to the story, so he follows cops to Negron’s apartment. There they discover a valuable 450-year-old statue head that went missing from an Italian bridge about 40 years earlier. Boyle decides to investigate how Negron came to possess it and gets the story of the head.
From there we head back to WWII. The statue starts with US soldier Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). After a deadly German assault, he takes shelter in an Italian farmhouse. There he discovers a wounded eight-year-old local boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Train rescues the boy and reconnects with the rest of his unit. This group includes radioman Negron, Train’s pal Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and ranking officer Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke). They take Angelo to a nearby village for help and end up involved with the locals. The film follows their interactions with the Italian civilians along with connected subplots.
Lots of connected subplots, in fact. Miracle bogs down its basic tale with various semi-related elements, and why? That I can’t tell you. If the movie stayed focused on the American soldiers, it might prove more effective – maybe not original, but better.
Unfortunately, Miracle feels like Lee’s attempt to be a Big Important Epic, so he overreaches. Through this pursuit of so many topics and characters, the movie develops a “Cliffs Notes” feel. Screenwriter James McBride based the script on his own novel, and I’d be curious to know how much he needed to pare from his original text. My guess would be that lots of information got the boot; as a film, Miracle feels jerky and expurgated.
This means we barely get a taste of the characters and scenarios involved. The four nominal leads never develop into anything more than basic war flick stereotypes. Though the tale ostensibly comes from his point of view, Negron remains a cipher; he’s there for the events but rarely has much to do. Train is the big dumb one with a heart of gold, while Stamps is the noble leader and Cummings is the angry one. We’ve seen them all before, and the movie doesn’t bother to develop them in a satisfying way.
At least the four lead soldiers get some development. Unfortunately, all the others – mostly the Italians – have a few moments and that’s about it. We get to know little about what makes them tick, and the movie doesn’t seem to mind. It wants to pursue its 27 different plot threads – who cares if any of these elements work?
After the satisfying Inside Man, I hoped maybe Lee would continue to embrace films without a racial or political agenda. While I don’t think Lee needs to become a “gun for hire” who pursues no personal projects, I did think it was nice to see him do something that cared more about storytelling and movie craft than making a Big Racial Statement.
Unfortunately, Miracle takes us back to the same old Lee with an axe to grind. I won’t argue that in the President Obama “post-racial society” that we need to forget about racial injustice, but I’m not sure that Miracle offers the right time and place for another screed on the subject. Racism really has little connection to the movie’s true theme. Lee’s attempts to involve racial issues feels forced and never quite matters in the greater scheme of things.
Miracle would feel more progressive if it presented the black soldiers in a more matter of fact manner. One could argue this would be unrealistic, and they might be right. Racism was absurdly alive and well in the WWII armed forces, so Lee might view it as intellectually dishonest to ignore that side of things.
However, given the level of fantasy and the number of absurd moments found here, I don’t think that would matter. Tremendously scattered and inconsistent, Miracle often makes little sense. Indeed, you’re likely to wear out your hand from all the head scratching. This reaches a peak during the film’s befuddling and bizarre climax, but it doesn’t end there. You’ll find many a perplexing moment in this flick.
At 160 minutes, Miracle feels both too short and too long. It’s too brief because it so rarely evolves into anything more than character and story sketches. Everything comes across as clipped and abbreviated, so I wonder if the film would prove more satisfying if given more room to breathe.
On the other hand, the product we see is too darned long. After all, it runs nearly three hours, and it’s more than slightly frustrating to find such a stilted, awkward product when it goes for such an extended amount of time. One doesn’t expect to find a 160-minute movie that suffers from so many holes, especially given the fairly simple story at its heart.
And if Miracle had stuck with its basic tale, it could’ve succeeded. There’s a decent movie buried underneath all the muck, I believe. Unfortunately, it never gets a chance to emerge. Instead, we find a flat, confusing half-baked Saving Private Ryan wannabe.