Blu-ray Review: Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

Arriving on DVD & Blu-ray

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An Introduction

Despite the fact that there are so many films about World War II that technically-- in the genre of war movie-- there could be numerous "sub-genres" regarding different aspects of that particular war, amazingly, in more than sixty years since filmmakers around the globe have been tackling the subject, the coverage of the servicemen and women who fought and died has always had one thing in common. Namely, it's been exclusively focused on soldiers of all ethnic backgrounds aside from African-Americans.

Yes-- as some veterans joke along with director Spike Lee in the round-table discussion "Deeds Not Words" included as a Bonus Feature on the Blu-ray of Miracle at St. Anna-- black faces have been represented somewhat as drivers or a guy running out of a P.O.W. camp-- however, to the average filmgoer, their involvement in the war has been inexcusably overlooked and nearly absent from historical books as well.

Although a few years back, HBO crafted a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, Glory is a beloved Oscar winner, and there's been some great legendary tales heard about the Buffalo Soldiers who not only saved Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders when caught in a jam in the American west but also served with distinction in World War I proving their phenomenal skill in combat but as Lee notes in the extra feature, they've still been excluded from our cinematic retelling of the war. Yet, as the director reasons, African-Americans have not only been one of the most patriotic groups in the history of our land (despite 400 years of slavery) but also the first person to die for America was African-American Crispus Attucks.

Upon realizing the lack of representation of African-American soldiers in World War II films-- most notably those made by director Clint Eastwood-- Lee decided to make a film himself, tackling an entirely new genre, boldly journeying to Italy with a good bulk of the film's dialogue being spoken in Italian, and gaining expertise in the form of both former Buffalo Soldiers soldiers as well as author James McBride who wrote both the book and screenplay for their opus, Miracle at St. Anna.

Releasing to DVD and Blu-ray on February 10 from Walt Disney Home Entertainment's Touchstone division-- I'm proud to offer a second look at this underrated gem by first offering my original theatrical review before Imove solely into the technical aspects, featurettes, and Blu-ray transfer of Lee's compelling work.

I. The Film

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).

Moving Haystack

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.

II. The Blu-ray

As Touchstone did with the superlative transfer of their Blu-ray for Swing Vote, they've proven their mastery of the format once again in the quality of Miracle at St. Anna which nearly pops off the screen with its 3-D like quality and perfect balance between the noisy battle scenes and intimate conversations in close quarters.

Captured in its original widescreen format with 1080p High Definition and English 5.1 DTS-HD (as well as 2.0 Dolby Digital) and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital sound options, it also contains subtitles in all three languages as well. Serving up the traditional required deleted scenes-- the disc's best feature consists of the aforementioned round-table discussion "Deeds Not Words" in which Spike Lee and James McBride chat with both veteran Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers who recount their experiences on the air and ground in Harlem's Col. Charles Young Post American Legion House that manages to entertain and inform at the same time, reminding us once again how vital it is for individuals like Lee with access to take down these accounts and help preserve history for future generations.

Likewise, the Blu-ray continues as a teaching tool with a mini documentary clocking in at roughly twenty minutes entitled "The Buffalo Soldier Experience" which offers an overview of the group and traces their origins with rare footage and exclusive firsthand accounts.

While it's obviously fitting that the film is releasing during Black History Month and all the more exciting that its release on Blu-ray finds the nation under the leadership of our first African-American president (which the men discuss briefly in the round-table chat which was filmed before the election), in the end and despite the film's flaws at it beings to lose its footing in an overly long conclusion, it doesn't matter when it's released as the most important thing is that it was made in the first place.

Moreover, hopefully the film will now get in the hands of more viewers to help inspire and educate this generation about the unsung heroes who risked their lives to help preserve our freedom.