Adollop of Saving Private Ryan, a dash of Letters from Iwo Jima, and a sprinkle of Italian neorealism characterize the style and sentiment of Miracle at St. Anna, a generally ludicrous and—at 160 minutes—punishing saga meant to be producer-director Spike Lee’s bid to memorialize the heroism of African-American soldiers during WWII. While Lee’s movies often benefit from excellent performances from first-rate actors and clever visual design, these positives are often overwhelmed by an over-the-top narrative style that works to kill the inherent intelligence and poignancy of the material.
James McBride, adapting his own novel, and Lee insist on threading together so many storylines that their film becomes a tangle of competing motives, counter-motives, non sequiturs and distractions. Miracle’s central narrative concerns four black soldiers who find themselves trapped behind German lines in Italy during WWII, and must rely on each other, as well as embattled local villagers and a keen but emotionally scarred young boy, to complete their mission. Onto this relatively clean backbone, McBride and Lee graft a tedious, shaggy-dog murder mystery to bookend the story. Set 40 years after the movie’s wartime events, the framing segments involve one of the soldiers, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), now working as a bank teller, who inexplicably shoots dead a stranger at his teller window. The murder prompts a scrappy reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to investigate why Negron did what he did. But this plot contributes nothing substantial to the narrative except to set us up for the movie’s dewy-eyed, unsurprising finale, and to give Lee the requisite McGuffin to flashback to his WWII “lost platoon” plotline.
The relationships among these four soldiers—Negron, the cocksure Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), the earnest Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), and the lumbering, pure-hearted Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller)—make up Miracle’s most compelling parts. Their dynamic is informed a great deal by their variable patriotism, their optimism, or lack thereof, for racial advancement in America, and in the ironies of feeling freer as black men in Europe than they ever did in their homeland. It makes for a number of powerful moments, thanks to sharp performances from Luke and Ealy, and to accidental lapses in Lee’s otherwise stultifying direction.
Once over the enemy line, the soldiers find a small boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), a loner amid the ruins, with the unnerving habit of mumbling to an imaginary friend. Angelo instantly latches onto the child-like Private Train who is, in turn, convinced that the eccentric Angelo is their heaven-sent benefactor. Angelo leads the soldiers to his Tuscan village, and to shelter at his family homestead, inhabited by various Italian peasant clichés: the crotchety father/Fascist sympathizer, the befuddled, dutiful housewife, and the firecracker-hot, politically vivacious young daughter Renata (Valentina Cervi).
Instantly, a chemistry forms between Renata and the horndog Bishop, and between her and the more circumspect Aubrey. She’s drawn to both men for different reasons yet her alternating virgin/whore routine renders her a less than sympathetic figure. The soldiers, meanwhile, on orders from their white superior (played with ruthless adherence to stereotype by Walton Goggins) seek to capture a German soldier for interrogation—a plot point that dovetails with a parallel development involving anarchist partisans operating in the local mountains. The partisans, turns out, just happened to have captured a fugitive German soldier. But any chance for retrieving information from him is threatened when Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli), one of the partisans—and who, it should be noted, bears a striking resemblance to the murdered stranger of the movie’s opening—reveals himself to be a nasty turncoat.
In underscoring just how bloated this material is, McBride inserts a sub-storyline involving the bond between Rodolfo and partisan leader Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino). Dreadfully long exchanges between them reveal a close-knit friendship, soured by tragedy and bound for betrayal. Indeed, Miracle is strewn with betrayals—sexual, political, familial and otherwise—all the way to the requisite, Private Ryan-like gun-battle climax, in which soldiers try to evacuate the village as Germans storm in. Amid the obligatory pell-mell of screaming and gunfire, Lee wedges in a seemingly miraculous intervention—call it deus ex machina or Hollywood contrivance—on which the whole of this Oscar bait of a production hinges. For every decently observed scene, there are a dozen dull, asinine ones to be endured, awash in over-orchestration and silly visual choices. That’s about the average ratio for your run-of-the-mill Lee joint, and Miracle is as good an example as any movie in his career to illustrate just how exasperating his work can be.