Friday, October 03, 2008

'Miracle @ St. Anna' NY Times Review...

Miracle at St. Anna
David Lee/Disney Enterprises
From left, Matteo Sciabordi, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke and Laz Alonso in "Miracle at St. Anna."

Hollywood War, Revised Edition

Published: September 26, 2008

At the beginning of “Miracle at St. Anna” an old man sits in his apartment watching a movie on his black-and-white television set. The film is “The Longest Day,” the sprawling 1962 World War II drama starring John Wayne and nearly every other white movie star of the era, and it provokes a bitter reaction. “We served our country too,” says the viewer, a postal worker and Army veteran named Hector Negron.

“Miracle at St. Anna,” directed by Spike Lee and based on a novel by James McBride, who wrote the screenplay, exists in part to make the obvious, overdue point that men like Hector (Laz Alonso) — Latino and in particular African-American soldiers — fought as bravely and as hard as the characters in those Hollywood combat epics. But setting the record straight after so many years and so many movies is not necessarily a simple undertaking, and this film sometimes stumbles under its heavy, self-imposed burden of historical significance.

Like the French director Rachid Bouchareb, whose “Days of Glory” followed Arab soldiers fighting for France against the Nazis, Mr. Lee sticks to the sturdy conventions of the infantry movie, adapting old-fashioned techniques to an unfamiliar, neglected story. And the cinematic traditionalism of “Miracle at St. Anna” is perhaps its most satisfying trait. At its best, this is a platoon picture, and if it’s not exactly like the ones Hollywood made in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that’s part of Mr. Lee’s argument: it’s the movie someone should have had the guts or the vision to make back then. Better late than never.

It should not be surprising that “Miracle at St. Anna” is occasionally corny and didactic. Every now and then, the action slows down to make time for a speech or a carefully staged argument about racial injustice. But if you’re tempted to roll your eyes, recall that such speeches — on the subjects of liberty and democracy and the mortal threat to those ideals posed by Hitler and his army — have always been a staple of all but the most hardboiled and cynical World War II movies. And in this one, as in “Days of Glory,” the high-minded talk and theme-announcing scenes illuminate a thorny and crucial paradox, namely that the countries fighting against totalitarian race-hatred had some serious race problems of their own.

If Mr. Lee were just advancing this thesis, “Miracle at St. Anna” would not be as rich as it is. But it would also be shorter and more coherent. In its current form there is too much going on — five or six different movies squeezed awkwardly into a little more than two and a half hours, some enlivened by Terence Blanchard’s lush and mournful score, some drowned in it.

The opening scenes, which take place in New York in 1983, lay out a murder mystery to be unraveled in the wartime flashbacks that make up most of the movie. (To make matters even more baroque, there are flashbacks inside these flashbacks.) One day at the post office Hector Negron shoots down a customer who has come to buy a stamp. Eager to discover why, a scoop-hungry young reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds a broken piece of statue among Negron’s belongings. This object is either the key to the whole story or one of the biggest cinematic red herrings since “The Maltese Falcon.”

This framing story, which starts as film noir and winds up flooding “Miracle at St. Anna” with sentimentality, supernaturalism and distracting cameos (from John Leguizamo, John Turturro and Kerry Washington, among others), is muddled and unconvincing. Luckily, though, the case of the headless statue does not really have much bearing on the film’s two main narrative strands, which concern the intertwined fates of a band of Italian partisans and a group of soldiers from the Army’s all-black 92nd Division in a Tuscan hill town in 1944.

The American soldiers, who have slipped through the German lines, are, with respect to temperament and background, at least as various as the melting-pot dogface units of the old infantry flicks. In addition to Negron, who is Puerto Rican and Roman Catholic, there is Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a big, gentle, superstitious Southerner — a kind of holy innocent in hellish circumstances. His friendship with an Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) is one of the film’s more improbable elements and also its sweetest.

The significant conflict within the American squad occurs between Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), who is disciplined, idealistic and forward looking, and the cynical, fatalistic Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), whose gold tooth and rough talk mark him as a streetwise foil for Stamps’s stiff-backed righteousness.

Mr. Lee has long been interested in tensions and debates among African-Americans, and in the ideological and social diversity that exists within black America. Like Mookie and Buggin’ Out in “Do the Right Thing” (or indeed like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., that movie’s uneasily twinned emblems of resistance), Stamps and Cummings represent different responses to the challenges of racism. They argue about tactics, politics and the trustworthiness of white people, and also become rivals for the favor of Renata (Valentina Cervi).

She is part of an extended family that is, in its own way, riven by political conflict, as erstwhile Fascist sympathizers share food, shelter and kinship ties with die-hard partisans. This part of “Miracle at St. Anna,” with its themes of vengeance, treachery and honor, is a reminder of Mr. Lee’s longstanding, frequently ambivalent fascination with all things Italian, including the work of Italian and Italian-American filmmakers.

Here, an obvious debt is to Roberto Rossellini, whose “Paisan” is one of the few World War II movies from the 1940s to address the experiences of African-American G.I.’s. But “Miracle at St. Anna,” produced with Italian financing, is hardly the first Spike Lee Italian joint. It is, rather, the latest in a series of thorny intercultural love stories that stretches back to “Do the Right Thing” and through “Jungle Fever” and “Summer of Sam.”

And it is in the fragile bonds that form between the black soldiers and the Italian villagers that “Miracle at St. Anna” breaks free of its own grandiosity and tells a grounded, moving, human story. Not a miracle by any means, but an earthy inquiry into death, duty, friendship and honor. What we’ve always wanted from war movies.

“Miracle at St. Anna” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has profanity, nudity and graphic violence.


Directed by Spike Lee; written by James McBride, based on his novel; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Tonino Zera; produced by Roberto Cicutto, Luigi Musini and Mr. Lee; released by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

WITH: Derek Luke (Aubrey Stamps), Michael Ealy (Bishop Cummings), Laz Alonso (Hector Negron), Omar Benson Miller (Sam Train), Pierfrancesco Favino (Peppi Grotta), Valentina Cervi (Renata), Matteo Sciabordi (Angelo), John Turturro (Detective Ricci), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tim Boyle), John Leguizamo (Enrico), Kerry Washington (Zana Wilder), D. B. Sweeney (Colonel Driscoll) and Robert John Burke (General Almond).

Copyright 2008

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