On the DVD cover of Miracle at St. Anna, Touchstone quotes Pat Collins of WWOR-TV/New York, who calls the film, "The best war movie since Saving Private Ryan." Were Mr. Collins' words twisted, or was he saying that Saving Private Ryan was a cliche, boring, silly and even racist war movie as well?
Miracle at St. Anna is a Spike Lee joint, and one of his most ambitious films to date. The $45-million WWII film is about a small group of African-American "Buffalo" soldiers who get separated from their unit and find themselves stranded in an Italian village. There, they befriend the locals and a small pack of partisans who have vowed to fight to the death against the Nazis. Relationships ensue and their loyalties are put to the test. The movie is inspired by the August 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema, where many Italian citizens were murdered.
Miracle at St. Anna is a disaster from the first minute, and just get worse as it goes along. The passion and ambition of Lee is sincere, but in this case, entirely misguided. The film starts with a mysterious modern-day murder, but due to a combination of poor aging makeup and the even more mysterious question of why the hell does that guy have a gun just lying on the counter at his post office job, it does not make a good first impression. From there, Miracle at St. Anna devolves into a poorly edited, molasses-paced war drama.
Lee chooses an ancient statue head as a Macguffin, and this head is found in the murderer's apartment post-arrest. Clearly, the movie is going to tell us how this man came to be in possession of the head and how it's related to the murder he just committed. Oddly, when Lee flashes back to 1944, the head has already been found by the soldiers. What could have been an interesting subplot instead exists simply to serve as a goofy religious relic, as some of the characters choose to rub its scalp for good luck. Wow.
More problematic is that the one character who survives the climax - the one who goes onto become the murderer - is the least developed of the four soldiers. In fact, as the final battle ensues, I completely forgot that he even existed. In general, Miracle at St. Anna lacks much of any character development at all, which is rather surprising given that the movie is nearly three hours long. Worse, two of the four leads are embarrassingly stereotypical and racist in their depiction. Omar Benson Miller plays Train, who is referred to as the Chocolate Giant by the young Italian boy he befriends. Train is more comedic relief than anything else, but he wasn't intended to be. His superstitious, religious rantings are embarrassing, and his uselessness in battle doesn't seem to help Lee's argument that Buffalo Soldiers played an important role in WWII. He acts like a coward, and then annoyingly argues with his white commander in a way that hopefully few soldiers would do.
Just as bad is Michael Ealy's Sergeant Cummings, who plays the black playa of the group. He shamelessly hits on the beautiful Italian woman Renata (Valentina Cervi), saying all of the sleazy things that would never work on a woman. He also says "Mmmhmm" about 60 times, and is the perfect example of the black stereotype that Lee shouldn't be encouraging. Neither Cummings are Train are likable characters, though both are meant to be. Derek Luke's Stamps and Laz Alonso's Negron are more redeemable, but both seem more like afterthoughts than full characters.
Sadly, Lee perpetuates stereotypes and presents the conflict between white and black American soldiers in a bitter, non-constructive way. Rather than exploring the issue in a meaningful way, Lee's attempts are bitter and not very realistic. He could and should have made a movie about racism during WWII, but his small representation of racism in Miracle at St. Anna is painfully shallow. Ironically enough, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Father did a much better job of exploring racism, and that's a movie that Mr. Lee has infamously called out for not portraying race effectively.
Beyond the characters and racism issues, though, Miracle at St. Anna is just hopelessly boring. Without a single interesting character in the story and a disjointed story that never flows or establishes a sense of emotion, Miracle at St. Anna moves at a snail's pace. Many events and developments are silly, and by the time the final battle comes, it brings excitement only because this means that the ending credits are near.
Miracle at St. Anna is a movie that with a few alterations could have been decent, but in its present form is a complete waste of time. It is slow, unintentionally cheesy and lacks emotion. Avoid this one at all costs.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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