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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.02.08





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A Bloody Mess

Spike Lee delivers a blunt blow to the head

by JASON BLAIR

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA: Written by James McBride. Directed by Spike Lee. Cinematography, Matthew Libatique. Music, Terence Blanchard. Starring Michael Ealy, Derek Luke, Omar Miller and Laz Alonso. Walt Disney Pictures, 2008. R. 160 minutes.

These soldiers rescued the boy, but they couldn’t rescue the movie

War movies, said Vincent Canby, automatically celebrate everything they touch. I’m afraid the same is true for Miracle at St. Anna, although not in the way Canby meant. Apart from When the Levees Broke, a true story so distressing it’s beyond embellishment, Spike Lee wouldn’t know restraint if he slammed into it with a full head of steam. That’s fitting, because the train wreck that is Miracle at St. Anna celebrates everything wrong with today’s films, but in particular Spike Lee films: stories that shun, rather than celebrate, complexity; characters that are more smear than shape; and in general an easy preference for the visceral and grotesque. For me there is great sadness in this. That is because Miracle at St. Anna is not Bamboozled or She Hate Me, two examples of how far the once-great filmmaker Lee has fallen. Rather it is because the St. Anna massacre deserves a careful, proper telling but instead gets a blunt and careless treatment that film students — the only ones who will be watching this film in perpetuity, precisely because they are required to — will recall as an overwrought Great Opportunity Lost.

Miracle at St. Anna concerns four “Buffalo” or black soldiers who, as the only survivors of their division, wander deep inside enemy lines during World War II. (The film is unclear how, or even when, they manage to do this.) The four men fall into easy stereotypes: the fallen preacher, Bishop (Michael Ealy); the quiet sharpshooter, Hector (Laz Alonso); the morally upright captain, Stamps (Derek Luke); and the gentle giant, Train (Omar Miller). Train discovers an Italian boy who thereafter clings to his side. The boy may or may not possess an ability to communicate with the dead. (On this, again, the film is unclear.) While holed up in a tiny village, two of the men fight over the beautiful Renata (Valentina Cervi), whose husband fights in the Italian resistance — a ragtag band that eventually returns to the village with the German army on their heels. A firefight ensues. People die. It’s all pretty grim. I forgot it almost immediately.

Widely criticized for being too long, Miracle at St. Anna is far too wide. It incorporates, by my count, one useless MacGuffin, two needless subplots and scores of forgettable characters. The actors are game but roughed up by a screenplay that bulldozes through every scene. The script is a total failure, but there’s Lee at every turn, polishing the turd too brightly, attacking the story with a misplaced vigor that completely sacrifices sense or emotion. Severed limbs are lingered over, rather than glanced upon. Title cards, the little textual cues indicating time and location, come in sets of twos and threes, like a stranger who gives you directions but won’t shut up. The dialogue is atrocious; were not the subject matter sacred, it would be parodied throughout the world. The film actually contains the line “He’s as clean as the Board of Health,” a proclamation as old as Rasputin and every bit as funny. The film is peppered with era-specific wiseguy speak along the lines of this gem, delivered from John Turturro to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt: “All I can give you is an empty feeling, kid.” Gulp. Does that come with a migraine?  

Miracle at St. Anna even feels out of step with its Terence Blanchard score, a severe and noisome elegy that actually interferes with the film — or vice versa. The failure of Miracle at St. Anna is tragic, for the story the “greatest generation” has been writing for itself often omits the contribution of African-American soldiers. Redressing that omission is left to a film other than Miracle at St. Anna, which is extraordinary only in that it manages to be both predictable and confusing at once.