Miracle at St. Anna
It's hard to criticize Spike Lee; he's made so many good films ("He Got Game," "Summer of Sam." "Inside Man") and even a few truly great ones ("Do the Right thing," "Malcolm X," "Four Little Girls," "When the Levees Broke"). But there are some problems with his new film "Miracle at St. Anna," including a Christian message that adds nothing and is difficult for someone who's not a Christian, as I am not. But first, let me set the stage: The year is 1983, a New York post office. A man comes up to the window to buy a stamp and the clerk takes out a Luger and shoots him. That mystery will not be solved until the final moments of "Miracle at St. Anna," which Lee has made from a novel and screenplay by James McBride.
After that opening, the film goes back forty years to a troop of black American soldiers, the 'Buffalo' soldiers, fighting their way up the Italian penninsula and trying to deal with a white captain who manages to get most of them killed because he thinks, since they're blacks, they're too stupid to give their correct position. The squad, with only four men left, find themselves in an Italian village, behind German lines, having to deal with Fascists, partisans and the threat of the Germans counterattacking and coming into the village.
Lee has cast the film with unknowns, which is a help, except that they seem to fulfill all the clichés of standard white war films. There's the squad leader, a smart, tough man; a sexier, jazzier man who seduces a willing and beautiful villager; a radio operator, and a huge child-man, who carries around the head of a statue that he found on the streets of Florence and believes that rubbing it makes him invisible. He finds a wounded 8-year-old boy who calls him his chocolate giant and never leaves his side.
Unfortunately, once Lee has established that, the film has no place to go, other than to wait for a final firefight with the German counterattack. He stages that quite well, although with the same flaw that marred so many of the white World War II films: the good guys never seem to run out of ammunition for their assault rifles; they can fire for hours, it seems, without reloading, mowing down huge numbers of Germans. There are flashbacks within the flashback of the men at war, including one of a racial conflict at a cafe near their Louisiana training base, underlining Lee's ability to stage racial confrontations in a realistic manner.
Nevertheless, when the mystery of the murder is solved and the film - at two hours and forty minutes - is over, we walk out of "Miracle at St. Anna" without the catharsis that Lee would like us to have; something that might have made the film unforgettable.