Miracle at St. Anna (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Filmmaker/provocateur Spike Lee recently ended a very public feud with Clint Eastwood over the perceived whitewashing of Flags of Our Fathers. And Lee's new film, Miracle at St. Anna, can be seen as a response to the historical inaccuracies of Eastwood's film. While it's his most ambitious and technically accomplished work to date, Lee seems to have bitten off more than he can chew as far as story is concerned. The result is a sloppy film whose epic size and scope only serves to highlight the deficiencies of the narrative.
The film opens in New York City in the 1980s, as a U.S. Postal Service worker shoots and kills a man who comes to his booth to buy a stamp. An ambitious journalist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shows up at the scene and immediately starts chasing down leads with the help of a grizzled homicide detective (John Turturro). The investigation takes the young reporter to the shooter's apartment, where authorities find the valuable head of a statue long thought missing.
From there, we flash back to the front lines of World War II, where the Buffalo Soldiers' 92nd Infantry Division is busy fighting for its life. This early sequence features the film's most interesting and original idea a Nazi propagandist named Axis Sally (a sexy but frightening Alexandra Maria Lara) who broadcasts about America's true attitudes toward its black soldiers.
Once the dust settles following some graphic carnage, the story follows 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the headstrong leader of the pack; Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), the group's cocky lothario; Pfc. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), an imposing physical force with a heart of gold; and Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), an especially underwritten character considering his importance to the climax of the film.
Eventually, they assume the care of a young Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi, the group's unofficial fifth member) who has escaped certain death and affectionately nicknames Train the "Chocolate Giant." The boy also has certain knowledge of the titular event that may help the soldiers survive. Miracle at St. Anna would be stronger if these were the only characters we were invested in, but Lee soon takes on way too many characters and subplots. James McBride's script is too talky for a war picture, as the film gets carried away trying to tell the story from every side.
That story confronts important questions of race and identity, but Lee veers into melodrama with a flashback to a Southern diner that hammers his point home with all the subtlety of an elephant. As far as the performances are concerned, they're all strong but none particularly stand out because the actors just don't have the material to work with. The lush visuals are magnificent but overshadowed by Terence Blanchard's incessantly bombastic and intrusive score.
If Inside Man represented a return to form for the much-maligned filmmaker, Miracle at St. Anna is, in many ways, a giant step back. Lacking any sense of urgency or dramatic focus, the film rambles on for 160 minutes, a solid half-hour too long. What's most frustrating is how much potential it wastes. The film has all the makings of a classic, but ends up being an extreme disappointment that never settles into a groove or decides what it wants to be.