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War Debacle: Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Disney)

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Friday, September 26, 2008


Miracle at St. Anna
Directed by Spike Lee
(Disney)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

“Deeds Not Words” goes the intended stirring refrain of Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s revisionist World War II drama about black soldiers fighting in Italy. But arriving after Lee’s public spat with Clint Eastwood over the absence of African-American soldiers in the elder director’s Flags of Our Fathers, Miracle doesn’t quite walk the walk. Whether Lee was in the right or not in his attack, compared to that brazen declaration of a colleague’s misrepresentation of history Miracle comes off less like a politically astute correction than a politically correct obligation — a film so desperate to avoid the clichés of the combat genre and the Greatest Generation industry that it continually runs smack into a host of other insurmountable problems. What makes Miracle especially disappointing is that its failure cannot, unlike so much previous Lee, be attributed to hubris or the inability to conform to good taste or conventional storytelling. Miracle instead fails because it is well behaved, over-earnest, dully saccharine.

Lee seeks to do to the combat film in Miracle something similar to what he did to the heist film in Inside Man, his return to public relevance and box-office success after a string of more personal endeavors that left audiences miffed, either due to their free-form narratives (She Hate Me), immediate post-9/11 reflections (The 25th Hour), or front-and-center confrontations with the racism of American entertainment (Bamboozled). With Inside Man Lee gave the people a giddily executed “how are they going to get away with this?” bank robbery stand-off, filled it with his signature didactic digressions, and pulled off a twist that also doubled as historical inquiry. Though I’m not entirely certain Inside Man is lasting or memorable, everybody won in the end. Miracle doubles the bait and switch of Inside Man by wrapping a murder mystery around the combat-film plot. An old postal clerk close to retirement inexplicably shoots a customer while on the job. During the police investigation a priceless statue head from an Italian church is discovered among the clerk’s possessions.

An eager young reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attempts to interview the man to understand how he came to own this artifact. A long flashback ensues, starting with an all-black division of soldiers scouting the Italian countryside before being mowed down by their German counterparts. Lee depicts the African-American troops caught in the crosshairs of their own unstable allegiance. As they come nearer to the Nazis they are bombarded by the morale-undermining seduction of a sort of German Tokyo Rose, seen elegantly puffing on a cigarette in front of a Swastika backdrop in a radio station as she exhorts the “black bucks” to abandon the country that’s so mistreated them for her Aryan pleasures. And while under attack the 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers are hit by mortars ordered by their own Captain Nokes (Walton Goggins), who, back at camp, ignores the coordinates sent to him at the front line because he refuses to take seriously the black soldiers in his charge.

The tonal vacillation within this single scene often cuts across the whole of Miracle. Anytime Lee creates an arresting image such as the radio broadcast — a rare moment of surrealism charged with racial and sexual tension so over the top as to be absurd — he returns with a bored gesture toward didacticism that betray his resignation to the obvious. Subtlety has never been part of Lee’s cinematic vocabulary, but this go-round the one-dimensional characters and blunt speechifying are subsumed into stultified generic conventions. Bullet points like Nokes’s arrogant racism are made to conform to stock situations (the commanding officer more cowardly than his troops) rather than find expression in unique, multi-layered ones. James McBride, adapting the screenplay from his own novel, deserves some of the blame here. The band of brothers that survives the opening massacre is a bland array of types: Stamps (Derek Luke), the upright pillar of moral integrity; Bishop (Michael Ealy), the smarmy, self-serving con; Negron (Laz Alonso), the multilingual Puerto Rican skeptic, and Train (Omar Benson Miller), the enormous religious innocent. All four actors have little to work with here, but Miller acquits himself the least graciously, spouting exclamations like “Lawd, lawd, lawd,” in a mugging gentle giant lilt that makes Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men seem naturalistic by comparison.

Lee’s slavish devotion to the corny abounds. Train befriends an Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and the two inevitably share a bond even though separated by the language barrier, and fashion their own based on a system of taps. On top of this, Angelo, who constantly talks to an imaginary friend named Arturo (revealed to be a victim of a German massacre), has supernatural or divine powers that intermittently help the soldiers while stuck in an Italian village about to be besieged by Nazis. Train believes in the boy’s miracles, while his comrades possess varying degrees of reluctance in regard to the same — the film is about faith, you see. These naïve magical realist overtures (by way of the ethnic collision of Rossellini’s Paisa) play awkwardly against McBride and Lee’s ground-level panorama of the war’s divisiveness, split loyalties, and betrayals. An Italian father (Omero Antonutti) sympathizes with the fascists and reveres Mussolini, while his daughter (Valentina Cervi) aids the partisans and takes up with one of the black soldiers; a partisan (Sergio Albelli) sells out to the Germans; Nazis grumble about getting to see their kids and high command’s negligence of their rations.

So Miracle shows that good and bad exist on both sides of conflict, among civilians and soldiers and even within the same family, even as a montage sequence shows that all call upon a higher power to buttress their belief that what they’re doing is right. This is Lee’s supposed complication of the combat movie’s moral geography, an old-hat attempt at shades of grey extending to the black soldiers’ ongoing debate about serving their country. Guess which characters take up which sides of the argument? The debate feels about as based on actual experience as when the Italian daughter tantalizes Stamps with “You’ve never seen a woman’s breasts before?” There’s barely anything in Miracle that comes across as genuine — it’s all middlebrow platitudes or else self-conscious, half-hearted “subversions,” movie shorthand for the complex racial and moral quandaries Lee would like to think he’s courageously confronting.

And he has in the past, often so ferociously and with such giddiness and energy that his ideas arrive scattershot — messy, silly and, to many viewers, heart-on-sleeve embarrassing. But in those movies ambition matched formal exploration, to the point where Lee’s desire to say everything at once resulted in stylistic mishmashes true to the rhythms and self-satires of the pop culture of which he finds himself at the center and yet outside of. But not in Miracle. I’ll take the violent, bombastic, Who-scored montages contrasting outlets of cultural expression in Lee’s Summer of Sam bomb — probably the biggest missed chance of his career — any day over Miracle’s boring directorial choices: grainy film stock for the flashback’s combat scenes, contrived compositions comparing a man’s profile to the Italians’ Sleeping Man mountain, the dumbfounded double take by a the reporter and two cops at the statue head. Right down to the rushed reunion between soldier and child meant to conclude the film in spiritual exultation, Miracle is remarkably uninspired. While it doesn’t break the pattern of Lee’s subpar efforts, it does break his streak of fascinating overreaches. At two hours and 40 minutes, Miracle is as empty and hollow an “epic” as they come.

 

 

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