Studio: Touchstone Pictures
US Rating: Rated R for Strong War Violence, Language and some Sexual Content/Nudity.
Film Length: 160 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, Spanish and French Audio Tracks
Review Date: February 1, 2009
The Film - out of
Spike Lee is one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. Not all will agree with that, though many will and I fervently believe they are right. His accomplishments as a gifted filmmaker are matched by his passions as an artist activist – and those qualities are tethered together like a cameraman and his camera – lockstep, twined and merged into a single visionary exploration of issues and art in celluloid form. His work is often unpredictable, at times non-linear and always refreshing – even when he fails.
Miracle at St. Anna begins in Harlem, 1983. A postal clerk unexpectedly shoots a customer dead with a German Lugar, a handgun from World War II and detectives find in his closet the head of a statue, the missing Prima Vera taken out of Florence, Italy during the war. The suspect in custody, an ex-soldier, decorated with a purple heart, is questioned by a novice reporter and we are then transported into the war with the 92nd Infantry – Buffalo Soldiers. The soldiers, advancing on the Nazi’s are attacked and all but a few survive. Those who lived made it into the mountains where they find an injured boy, whom they tender care, and a village where they hold up awaiting contact with their commander. What transpires in the village as the four soldiers take stock of the war, their circumstances and the unusual bond one of the soldiers makes with the boy, forms the bedrock upon which this story unfolds. And it is not quite the story you may expect going into this film.
As with Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Miracle at St. Anna is a departure of territory for the kinds of stories he has spent his career telling – at least that is how it appears on the surface. Spike Lee directing a war film is in and of itself an intriguing prospect worthy of visiting. But Lee’s style and signature are present throughout. The way he introduces characters, dropping us in their lives with little build up but spending enough time with them to catch us up. The way he intersperses thrilling and dramatic sequences with static shots, relevant shots that remove us from the fluidity of movement to punctuate the moment with a visual exclamation mark. His expression of the narrative, which does not worry about hand-holding the audience and takes the approach that literary works have the liberty to take, is on display. In many ways, he is a writer in the visual medium.
Miracle is a serious film but the director delivers moments of levity amongst the dramatic events. The humor is at times, however, ill-matched to the flow of the story and can stand out where it should be natural to what’s happening with the characters. The drama too at times feels forced; manufactured in ways that the incredible and truly fascinating story itself could have delivered without help. The awkwardness that occasions Miracle at St. Anna is not alone as a distraction from what could have been a solid epic. It also suffers from moments of incoherence and Lee’s fascination with shooting a WWII shows at times through a lingering on familiar images found in older war films.
The films strengths however are impressive. The flawed and very human heroes are refreshing and extremely well played by the cast which features Derek Luke as 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Michael Ealy as Sergeant Bishop Cummings, Laz Alonso as Corporal Hector Negron and Omar Benson Miller as Private First Class Sam Train. Four actors who carry the weight of duty amidst bloodshed and the weight of the uniform amidst fatal prejudice and racism prevalent in the US Army and still rampant back in their Country which they are fighting to protect. The Italian cast, with Valentina Cervi as Renata, Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi 'The Great Butterfly' Grotta and introducing Matteo Sciabordi as Angeloare all very good as well. And Lee takes the right time to show us the characters, with details that enrich our understanding of who they are. He even gives us introductions to Nazi’s that elevate them from a monolithic evil force to include among them soldiers who question acts and motives of their war machine. Lee knows how to shoot and share characters in interesting ways and that helps here.
Spike Lee’s quite public spat with Clint Eastwood (though blown out of proportion) raised excellent points for Hollywood to ponder. Lee claimed Eastwood, with his companion WWII films Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, had failed to represent and recognize the substantial sacrifice African-American’s made in the fight against the Furor and his legions. But his comments were misguided, though did bring to the fore the continued failure of Hollywood to tell stories of the Buffalo Soldiers or how African-American presence in that war (and other wars) had been vital. Miracle at St. Anna seeks to right some of that wrong but does not do it with obvious material. By choosing to adapt James McBride’s complex novel, Lee found material that would touch upon Hollywood’s lack of balance without being familiar or overblown. This it isn’t really a war film, however, but rather a study of a moment in history, a moment that was informed by the pain of America’s racist past and created something that would echo deeply into the future, into Harlem 1983 where (and when) the film begins.
The first scenes of 1944 have the look of old military footage, with the grain and more subdued tone just right but without the print damage (that would have been a little much). But that eases off somewhat the more time we spend in the time of war. The color palette is laden with army fatigue colors, browns and tepid greens that represent Italy in what looks like fall. The image, however, is soft and finds only a few moments to present strong details.
Lee chooses natural lighting to shoot most of the night scenes, which is a laudable artistic choice, but with this transfer, it doesn’t measure up. Black levels are murky, especially during the naturally lit scenes indoors. Other times, the lack of definition between light and dark makes it hard to decipher objects and faces.
Touchstone Pictures brings Miracle at St. Anna to DVD with an active Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound audio option. War violence punches throughout the speakers; machine gins rattle and rip with piercing clarity and Terence Blanchard’s sobering and reflective score is sewn throughout the film and the speakers nicely with his excellent counterintuitive musical ear in full swing. There are no distortions, dialogue is without issue in the center channel and the battle sequences in particular do well with directional effects in the surrounds and bellowing booms from the sub-woofer.
No Extras, No Stars
Miracle at St. Anna is flawed and lacks the cohesive thrust that binds Spike Lee’s other works together. But it is a fascinating film none-the-less. You want to understand the ‘why’ behind the shocking act of violence committed by an unassuming and quiet man at the beginning of the film, and the story of the four Buffalo soldiers in the mountains with the Italian villagers is told with patience; time to at least try to understand the illogic of the times and perspective of black soldiers serving in a white American army, dying to protect a land that refused to treat them as equals. There are layers here that Spike Lee does not so readily force upon us; instead he lays it out giving us a chance to soak it up. If only the project had come with Lee’s very capable and gifted storytelling technique at full capacity. Then, Miracle at St. Anna could have become a solid start in response to the question, “Why are the stories of African-Americans in our military so seldom told?”