Derek Luke as 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps
Michael Ealy as Sergeant Bishop Cummings
Laz Alonso as Corporal Hector Negron
Omar Benson Miller as Private First Class Sam Train
Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi ‘The Great Butterfly’ Grotta
Valentina Cervi as Renata
Matteo Sciabordi as Angelo Torancelli ‘The Boy’
John Turturro as Detective Antonio ‘Tony’ Ricci
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tim Boyle
John Leguizamo as Enrico
Kerry Washington as Zana Wilder
D.B. Sweeney as Colonel Driscoll
Robert John Burke as General Ned Almond
Omari Hardwick as Platoon Commander Huggs
Omero Antonutti as Ludovico
Directed by Spike Lee
With such a strong creative force behind this rare look at the Buffalo Soldiers, some might be disappointed that Spike Lee’s first foray into war movies spends over two and a half hours wearing out its welcome after such a strong opening.
A post office shooting leads New York police to the shooter’s apartment where they find the head of an Italian religious statue in his closet. Nearly 40 years earlier, that statue’s head is being carried through the Italian countryside by Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a black soldier in the 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers. When he and his three fellow soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso) are trapped behind enemy lines in a small village housing Italian rebels, they find themselves having to work together to help a young boy (Matteo Sciabordi) survive.
The thought of Spike Lee tackling a World War II movie should excite fans of his impressive and diverse filmography, especially considering how little the African-American experience has been documented in past war films. “Miracle at St. Anna” is certainly new territory for the filmmaker in terms of directing an epic war story set in Europe, and really, one couldn’t think of a better director to tackle the subject matter of the all-black Buffalo Soldiers than one of the preeminent black filmmakers of the last two decades.
The film opens in the present day where a black man watches a war movie on television, a tear rolling down his cheek. The next day, the same man is working as a clerk at a post office and when a man with an accent asks him for stamps, he is shot dead by the clerk. It’s an interesting opening for a crime mystery as the New York City police try to determine the shooter’s motive, leading to his apartment and the long-missing head of a statue from the Italian church at St. Anna. We cut back to 1944 as the 92nd Division Buffalo Soldiers are traipsing across the Italian countryside, that same head being carried by a bulky private named Sam Train, a naïve young man with a Southern Baptist background. After being given bad coordinates by their commanding officer, the four soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines, where Train finds a mute boy who seems to have lost his parents. They bring him to a nearby village that’s in fact a base for Italian rebels, but the German army soon finds their location and surrounds the town with troops, giving the American soldiers no chance of surviving.
The first forty minutes of “Miracle at St. Anna” solidly sets up a movie that hopes to show another side of World War II then what we’ve seen in “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers,” and as expected, Lee does a commendable job capturing the indignities suffered by soldiers who were treated like little more than cattle by their white commanding officers, a particularly belligerent one played by D. B. Sweeney. Even with such blatant racism on display, the soldiers never deal with it head-on, sometimes mentioning it in passing but continuing to follow orders even when it clearly puts their lives in danger. Lee also does a fine job with his movie’s sporadic scenes of war though they’re few and far between compared to the long stretches of dialogue and exposition in between. The movie looks spectacular due to the exemplary camerawork and lighting by Matthew Libatique, and Terence Blanchard’s score is certainly luscious, though it tends to overpower what’s happening on screen.
Somewhere along the way, the movie loses its focus as it drifts over to Private Strait’s relationship with the young boy he fosters, something that gets tiring very quickly. It also introduces another storyline involving a German captive held by the Italian rebels who the four soldiers desperately try to keep alive for questioning. Eventually, all the various sub-plots do converge, but it requires a flashback to the actual massacre at St. Anna that took place before we encountered the 92nd Division. Flashbacks within a flashback are generally a no-no, but it’s essential at getting viewers who are very confused by now on track with why these characters have been brought together. Some might find it frustrating that Lee and screenwriter James McBride waited so long for the movie’s plot to start making sense.
One of the film’s strengths is the solid cast of fresh faces Spike Lee has assembled to tell the story with Derek Luke and Laz Alonso giving standout performances as two of the soldiers and Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, last seen in “Prince Caspian”, is decent as leader of the rebels. Appearances by a number of former Spike Lee collaborators doesn’t bring much to the movie, as the likes of John Turturro, John Leguizamo and Kerry Washington appear so briefly that their characters seem irrelevant to the overall story. Even the usually great Joseph Gordon-Levitt is underused in a role that proves to be fairly inconsequential.
The idea of creating a framing sequence around the post office shooting is certainly intriguing, even if it leaves one wondering how this postal worker just happens to have a handgun at his job on that particular day. Eventually, the movie does return to the “present day” and some might feel silly not realizing it was Laz Alonso’s character at the beginning of the movie, because his character, Corporal Hector Negron, plays such a miniscule part in the body of the movie compared to the other three soldiers. After over two hours, it feels more like an extended epilogue that never ends, trying to tie up loose ends by showing Negron’s court trial, and ending with a bizarre emotional-filled scene on a beach that’s likely to leave one even more perplexed than one was beforehand.
At two hours and forty-one minutes, the film’s excessive running time is inexcusable, especially considering the number of unnecessary scenes and subplots like the love triangle between Derek Luke’s noble Stamps, Michael Ealy’s cocky Bishop and an Italian woman from the village, that does absolutely nothing but waste time.
However one looks at it, the reason Lee’s war movie doesn’t work mainly comes down to poor storytelling decisions that get progressively worse as the movie plods along. The length of the movie might not have been so unbearable if the story were structured better and a lot could have been done to make it more interesting like using the intriguing present-day story to drive the flashback scenes. Instead, once the soldiers get to the Italian town, things generally go downhill and never recover.
The Bottom Line:
Who knows if Spike Lee accomplished what he was trying to achieve with this excessively long and rambling look at the Buffalo Soldiers of WW2, but if nothing else, Lee can feel some degree of satisfaction knowing he’s made a movie about as ineffective and incoherent as Clint Eastwood’s “Flag of Our Fathers.”