Director: Spike Lee
“Pilgrim, we fought for this country too,” an elderly African-American postal worker and World War II veteran says shortly into Spike Lee’s newest epic, Miracle at St. Anna as he talks back to the ironically “black and white” film starring John Wayne playing on his small television set. While this helps set the tone of Anna, which in an extended flashback chronicles the tale of four black soldiers who get separated from their unit and fall behind Tuscan, Italy enemy lines after a horrendous attack in 1944, incidentally it also serves as a brilliantly subtle and funny commentary on a recent controversy surrounding its director, Spike Lee.
A few months back, Lee publically challenged Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood regarding the absence of black soldiers from his World War II films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and, not taking kindly to criticism, Eastwood offered an insult to Lee, telling him to “shut his face.” While Lee responded with the quip “We’re not on a plantation,” he decided to Do the Right Thing as his most famous film title denotes, and not engage Dirty Harry any further In the Line of Fire. As an Inside Man, he did the next best thing—since white directors weren’t making enough films about black soldiers, he made one himself.
Based on James McBride’s acclaimed novel and inspired by the experiences of McBride’s veteran uncle who often talked about “how great the Italians were,” the novelist took a scholarly approach as the press release revealed. Namely he began by studying Italian at New York City’s The New School, ultimately moving to the country for six months where he interviewed dozens of Italians (both Partisans and Fascists) as well as African-American soldiers, hitting the books, and visiting Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s Army War College to understand “the whole business of what the 92nd [unit] did… to try to get an idea of what really transpired.” And indeed, McBride admits in the release, “While the story is fictional, there is truth at its core,” and Lee took it one step further, acknowledging that it’s not only a war film but also “a brutal mystery that deals with historic events and the stark reality of war. But it’s also a lyrical, mystical story of compassion and love.”
The film begins abruptly, initially set right around the Christmas holiday in 1983 as the postal worker we meet in the first scene goes about his job kindly but passively until a foreign voice requesting a twenty cent stamp stops him cold. Within an instant, the worker—just three months shy of his retirement—grabs a German Luger and shoots the customer cold. Refusing to talk or eat for days, the mystery increases after a new, young, ambitious reporter (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and other police officers discover a priceless marble bust from Florence that’s over 450 years old.
Worth five million dollars on the black market and missing since the Nazi’s blew up a bridge in the war, news of the humble, quiet man’s hidden antique is quickly leaked to the international press. Refusing to give up on the silent perpetrator, Gordon-Levitt visits him in his holding cell and is puzzled when ultimately the man utters one distinct sentence, namely, “I know who the sleeping man is.”
From there we journey back in time to meet the soldiers whose plight becomes the centerpiece of Lee’s drama. Part of the 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers—they comprise a unit of all black army men who must endure cruel treatment by some of their fellow soldiers, including one higher-up who dismisses the group as just an experiment of Eleanor Roosevelt’s.
Soon the men are thrust into battle quickly and after explosions rip into the deceptively quiet beginning (save for the annoying German propagandist radio broadcast by a sultry “Axis Sally” trying to lure the black men to the Nazi’s side) we realize that only four have survived. After two try to radio for help and keep away from enemy fire, they’re surprised to discover a moving haystack and even more surprised when the one who’s begun to lose it a bit overseas, the gentle “Chocolate Giant” Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) puts his own life in jeopardy to rescue an orphaned Italian boy (played by adorable newcomer Matteo Sciabordi).
And once the four men, including their intelligent and quick thinking leader Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the fast-talking player Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and the Puerto Rican soldier Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) are reunited, they turn to a local Italian family for assistance.
“The Boy Needs Help.”
Although hesitant at first, they find a strong ally in Valentina Cervi’s Renata,whose own husband has been away in the war for years, giving her a unique perspective and insight into the men’s plight. Realizing they’re in constant peril as they’re trapped behind enemy lines, the men plot an escape over the legendary mountain but the Italians, including Renata refuse to go.
“We Will Not Come With You.”
Stunned that the Italians shower the men with hospitality, treating them with the respect they deserve as men in uniform, it’s no wonder when a few of the Buffalo Soldiers begin to grow a bit too attached to their new surroundings, especially The Chocolate Giant, who forges a tight bond with the young boy, whom he looks after as though he were his own child in one of the film’s most moving and effective subplots.
And in fact, Miracle marks yet another in a long line of Italian films since the neorealist era that illustrates the brutalities of life through the innocent eyes of a young boy forced to come of age much too quickly. Additionally, Lee wears his influences like De Sica and Rossellini proudly and some of the exquisite photography, especially early on with its combination of beauty and horror as in an entire sequence where John Leguizamo accidentally drops a newspaper out a window up through the point where it is read, is breathtaking.
While Lee is overly ambitious and clocking in at nearly three hours, the film’s final hour could’ve benefited from strategic cutting and talented, world renowned jazz musician, the trumpeter Terence Blachard’s score is a tad too manipulative and insistent at times (calling far too much attention to itself in the first battle scene), Anna is nonetheless one of the best films I’ve seen since the start of Oscar season.
And although we must admittedly forgive an overly contrived and far too sentimental ending on a white sandy beach--which would’ve been more at home in this week’s Nights in Rodanthe-- Miracle at St. Anna is an overall excellent war film (view the trailer). Additionally it’s strongly acted by its ensemble cast, especially by Omar Benson Miller and the underrated Derek Luke whose career I’ve been following since his breakthrough turn in Denzel Washington’s directorial debut Antwone Fisher.
Unfortunately, while as a finished product it’s not quite on par with Eastwood’s masterpiece Iwo Jima, Lee’s authentically Italian epic is much more riveting than Flags of our Fathers and proves that—just like he did with his brilliant heist puzzle film Inside Man—Lee refuses to be pigeonholed into one specific genre, moving from one to the next with each fascinating project.
And while some like Summer of Sam would’ve possibly worked better on the page than on film, Lee still remains one of the “must see” filmmakers whose work demands attention regardless yet sadly, he’s often overlooked even with mini-masterpieces such as the underrated 25th Hour.
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