Miracle at St. Anna Review

Every time Spike Lee makes a movie it seems like there's a requirement to discuss whatever controversy is following him around at the time. Twenty years of this and it's become tiresome. No one should care about Lee as quotemaker when his films are the true points of fascination. He's one of our finest and most audacious mainstream directors, yet he remains a polarizing figure who will, to the frustration of many, never receive his due as long as these flare-ups continue. No American director has put together a more impressive body of work the last twenty years than Spike Lee, but when it came time for Lee's latest, Miracle at St. Anna, to be released stateside last fall the only thing anyone wanted to discuss was the Clint Eastwood feud, which humourously found the septuagenarian legend instructing his fellow director to "shut his face." If such an activity would allow Lee to simply make movies without distraction then perhaps Eastwood had a point.

Lee's films desperately need to be separated from the often overblown antics of their director. After the commercial and critical success of his deeply engaging heist film Inside Man, the marketing of which seemed to downplay Lee's involvement at every turn, and the universal praise for his Hurricane Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, it seemed like the perfect time to get something made which would've otherwise been impossible to finance. The result is Miracle at St. Anna, a movie primarily set in Tuscany during World War II and concerned with four black soldiers in the 92nd Infantry Division's George Company, part of an all-black army group frequently referred to as "Buffalo Soldiers." Reviewers and audiences, most likely unable to separate the Eastwood controversy from the actual film, have largely been unimpressed. It's earned less than $10 million worldwide on a $45 million budget, and received mixed to bad notices from critics.

These peripheral factors undoubtedly influence the film's reputation as well as its perception even for those who haven't yet watched it. Those who decide to give Miracle at St. Anna a try will enter with low expectations and quite possibly exit with pleasant surprise that the film isn't terrible or even bad. It's a bit of a disservice to approach things this way, though. Miracle at St. Anna is certainly imperfect, bogged down by a framing device that absolutely doesn't work both in idea and, especially, execution, but it's nonetheless an important and, typically for Lee, interesting film. The director and his screenwriter James McBride, working from his own novel, inject so much passion and determination into their story of four men fighting for what they believe to be someone else's freedom that it's disappointing to see both the negative reaction and the obvious shortcomings of the film. The midsection is particularly effective, once Lee gets a Private Ryan-like battle sequence out of his system and instead allows the focus to naturally rest on his four soldiers and their Italian acquaintances.

Prior to this, the picture opens with an elderly postal worker in New York City shooting a customer, seemingly unprovoked, with a German Lugar pistol in 1983. The head of an Italian statue is later found in the shooter's apartment closet by the police. This, along with a visit from a young newspaper reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the now-imprisoned gunman, leads to the bulk of the movie, set in 1944 during World War II. These characters are revisited in the last few minutes, where Lee unexpectedly turns into Steven Spielberg, and none of it works at all. The film is already somewhat long at 160 minutes and the gimmicky set-up comes across as distracting and unnecessary. Additionally, the actor playing the older man (Laz Alonso) looks like a younger person in heavy make-up, a trick that's much more difficult to let slide in modern films than in ones from the '40s and '50s.

Those shortcomings aside, none of which are easily ignored, Miracle at St. Anna is quite a good movie. Lee does two things that are deeply affecting, one of which is completely expected while the other is equally surprising. The subject matter of four black soldiers risking their lives for a country which doesn't afford them equal rights would seem to obviously lend itself to questions of whether the risk is worth the reward. This topic is initially addressed rather broadly with the elderly veteran Hector watching The Longest Day on television and showing his bitterness at not being equally recognized along with the white war heroes. It then comes up again and again, culminating in a digressive flashback within the flashback. The four main characters - Hector, Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop (Michael Ealy), and Train (Omar Benson Miller) - are shown driving up in an army jeep to a diner while stationed in Louisiana. They enter, see that all the other patrons are white including four captured German soldiers, and attempt to order. A verbal altercation ensues, later followed by the men taking matters in their own hands, and the message is unfurled loud and clear that they can die for their country but they can't be served in an establishment that allows service to enemy soldiers.

At times, Lee uses this idea with some awkwardness and the viewer might easily shuffle his feet past the hammering. But when it's repeatedly emphasised, especially in that particular scene, the message resonates. Hardly anyone watching can truly understand this situation and the filmmakers clearly feel it's an important enough aspect to return to over and over. This is essentially the entire foundation the film is built on. If the message isn't fully grasped, as opposed to just being acknowledged, then Lee and McBride have totally failed to convey their point. It seems doubtful Spike Lee spent so much time on Miracle at St. Anna simply to make a war movie. His overall success, ultimately, hinges as much on the often zealously shoved concept of the black regiment's plight as it does on the young Italian boy who serves as the true linchpin of the entire film. Without the young Angelo (and the extraordinary performance of Matteo Sciabordi), Miracle of St. Anna would only be a World War II movie about black soldiers, a concept largely unprecedented and one of definite importance, but still rather limited in ambition.

The character of Angelo is handled with surprising tenderness. Lee doesn't allow for extreme sentimentality, but he lets the relationship between Train and Angelo act as an important contrast to the bickering and acrimony among several of the other characters. We get humanity to offset the brutality of war. We get the natural connection between two entirely different people who have virtually nothing in common except survival. What we avoid is a cliched handling of the material. Some of the war movie tropes may appear as cliche on the surface, but this particular situation is left to function on a mystical scale untouched by cynicism. The strength of these main performances allows for more unfortunate aspects like the cardboard racist Captain Nokes (Walton Goggins) to be almost forgiven. It's not the racism that's troubling here, but the one-dimensional stock nature of that character. More successful is the brief, entrancing show put on by Alexandra Maria Lara as Axis Sally, the propaganda-spouting Nazi collaborator who told U.S. soldiers truths and half-truths they didn't want to hear. As a whole, Miracle at St. Anna isn't unlike these characters in its inconsistent successes and overt brashness, but it does usually match each weakness with an even more potent strength.

The Disc

Released simultaneously on R1 DVD and U.S. Blu-ray, Miracle at St. Anna has one quirk worth noting in terms of navigation. When the menu is accessed during playback, the film is relegated to a tiny rectangle in the top right corner of the screen. The menu options are then visible across the main portion of the screen instead of having them rise from the bottom. This is common for Buena Vista Blu-ray releases, but it's still annoying.

The 1080p video is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Detail is excellent and colours are handled without incident. Dark scenes look noticeably good. It should be mentioned that the scenes set in Tuscany, which make up the bulk of the film, tend to have a heavier than normal amount of grain. This is especially evident at the first transition to the flashback, but it can also be detected throughout the movie. I assume this was intentional to possibly achieve a grittier feel, but the grain isn't so heavy as to be obviously indicative of that idea. I've read that these scenes were actually shot on 16mm film, which would explain this portion's look. It seems an odd choice, even distracting to a small degree, but the image here appears to be faithfully rendered.

The primary audio choice is an English DTS-HD 5.1 track. The film also has a good amount of Italian and German dialogue, all of which is optionally subtitled. The DTS audio is expectedly clear and robust. There's actually not an abundance of loud sounds such as gunfire in the film, but the track spreads it all out nicely when necessary. Dialogue is always easily understood and at a consistent volume. Terrence Blanchard's beautiful score sounds rich and full. French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are also offered. The subtitles are white in colour and can be accessed in English, French and Spanish, as well as the accompanying English translation of the German and Italian dialogue in the film. Alternately, there's the choice for no subtitles at all.

In a contemptible move, the studio has decided to only include Miracle at St. Anna's bonus material on the Blu-ray release, leaving the DVD bare. This is not a welcome trend and the decision is made even more unfortunate by the quality of the two featurettes found on this disc. "Deeds Not Words" (17:07) is a roundtable discussion with the conversation divided among director Spike Lee, writer James McBride, and veterans of both the 92nd Buffalo Soldiers Division and the Tuskegee Airmen. It's a treasure of a supplement that repeats and confirms much of what's found in the film. "The Buffalo Soldier Experience" (21:35) is a similarly effective piece that explores the history of the primarily African American military unit, including the warm connection many of the soldiers felt with the Italian villagers in 1944. A couple of the Italian women are even interviewed.

Also included on the Blu-ray is a collection of nine deleted scenes that run approximately twenty minutes total. Four of these are extended versions of scenes in the final cut. The usual variety of previews and advertisements can be found in the "Sneak Peeks" area of the menu. All the extra features are in HD and include optional subtitles for English, French and Spanish.

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