Spike Lee's last film, the gratifyingly tense and tricky Inside Man, was celebrated rightly for the way that Lee finally jumped, feet first, into the studio-genre-movie game. He cooked up a gourmet-popcorn heist thriller and stamped every moment with his personality. Lee, until now, has never made a movie good or bad that wasn't unmistakably his. His latest, Miracle at St. Anna, is the first Hollywood feature to tell the story of the African-American soldiers who fought in the U.S. armed forces during World War II , and as such it's a movie with a monumental mission. Unfortunately, that's more or less the only monumental thing about it. Miracle isn't powerful, it's muddled and diffuse, and the disappointment of the film begins with what a hard time I had finding Spike Lee in it.
Based on a 2002 novel by James McBride, who also wrote the screenplay, the movie has a drifting, scattershot structure and no real organizing tone or style (if you wondered what Lee's frozen-figure-on-receding-background shots might look like in a wartime setting, then keep wondering). The bizarrely contrived framing device is set in the 1980s, when a postal worker named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) mutters in anger at an old John Wayne war flick on TV, then shoots and kills a man who shows up to buy stamps. (He surely has his reasons, but does he really get away with stashing a loaded Luger under his post-office window each day?) After his arrest, Hector won't talk, but a reporter finds a clue in the form of a priceless artifact hidden in his apartment: the head of a statue that once adorned a bridge in Florence that was wrecked by bombs during World War II.
From this labored and gimmicky setup, the film flashes back to the itch and fear of battle, as Hector, along with other members of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division and its ''Buffalo Soldiers,'' stalks the Tuscan countryside. It's September 1944, and as they try to cross the Serchio River, the men are ambushed. The sequence has thunderous explosions, jittery editing, blown-up bodies everything but the virtuosity of staging that might have made the chaos and carnage revelatory instead of just a Saving Private Ryan rehash. Four members of the division end up stranded behind enemy lines, all but abandoned by a racist commander. In addition to Negron, there's Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), a college-educated stoic devoted to his service; Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), furious at the world and a loose cannon, with no loyalty to the country he's fighting for; and Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a starry-eyed oversize simpleton who rescues, and befriends, an Italian urchin (Matteo Sciabordi).
The dramatic focal point, if you can call it that, is the war of wills between Stamps and Cummings. These two play out a version of the assimilate-versus-agitate debate that has echoed through many decades of African- American life, though this one would be more convincing if Ealy, a dynamic actor, had been asked to project his anger more in period, with a little less proto-gangsta recklessness. The men arrive at a picturesque village, where they mingle with the locals and Stamps and Cummings stoke their rivalry over Renata (Valentina Cervi), a married woman who is lovely in a saintly way. The film then veers into an endless, murky subplot about the Italian resistance from which it never recovers.
Miracle at St. Anna wants to do too many things at once to do any of them with much verve. It aspires to be a war epic, but it's dominated less by combat than by flat, meandering talk. It wants to salute the flesh-and-blood valor of the Buffalo Soldiers, but these unsung heroes are treated as such impersonally symbolic and stiff-jointed types that their heroism shines only faintly. The movie tries to be raw and real, yet it isn’t above trotting out a tyke who might have stepped out of Cinema Paradiso II to tag along with the soldiers as a mascot of sentiment. There are vile Nazis on hand and also a nice Nazi who does a really good deed. Miracle at St. Anna winds up as a pastiche of racial-historical correction, showboat atrocity, murder mystery, love story, and windy meditation. Is it any wonder that it’s less than the sum of its ambitious parts? As odd as it may sound to say about a war film, though, the real trouble with Miracle is that Lee’s filmmaking is joyless. C–