Early in Spike Lee’s new World War II drama, “Miracle at St. Anna,” there’s a scene in which a squad of black soldiers prepares to assault a fortified German position. Before the attack begins, the company is assailed by the vocal stylings of Axis Sally, the Nazi answer to Tokyo Rose.
Why fight for a country that hates you, treats you no better than slaves? Sally inquires. Why put your life on the line so you can be treated like chattel?
She actually sounds a lot like Mr. Lee at his most hectoring. I wonder if the irony was intentional.
“Miracle at St. Anna” is Mr. Lee’s take on the war film, a genre he thinks has unfairly overlooked the contributions of blacks. As a response, he has turned in an odd hybrid of a film - a war epic combined with a crime thriller combined with a discourse on civil rights.
The movie is just as unfocused as that summary makes it sound.
“Miracle” opens in New York City in 1983 with the murder of an Italian immigrant by an aging postal clerk who, we discover, is a war hero months shy of retirement. We then jump back in time to 1944, following his company of Buffalo Soldiers as they prepare to engage the enemy.
After getting separated from their mates, a quartet of black soldiers wander through the Italian countryside, picking up an orphaned child along the way. Finally, they settle down in an Italian village, where they are given orders by their company commander to capture a German soldier and bring him back for interrogation.
Like all of his films, Mr. Lee’s movie looks great; subtle and not-so-subtle camera moves heighten the tension and add to the drama. However “Miracle at St. Anna” suffers from several fatal structural flaws.
First and foremost among them is Mr. Lee’s constant digressions from the plot: flashbacks to embarrassment at the hands of Southern racists; jump cuts to incompetent, racist American commanders; a subplot involving a noble Nazi who may be the most sympathetic character in the movie outside of the main quartet. They come so frequently that, in retrospect, it is hard to remember what the soldiers were trying to accomplish.
There was something about getting lost behind enemy lines and trying to find safe passage home; there was something about capturing a Nazi to find out about enemy battle plans; there was something about protecting a boy whose village had been massacred (even though none of the protagonists actually knows the village was massacred).
Or perhaps the digressions are the plot. Perhaps Mr. Lee simply wanted to remind us, yet again, that America’s past is riddled with racism. He certainly doesn’t care about moving the plot along - by the end of the film, it’s not even clear what the titular miracle was.
Another problem is less pronounced but almost as profound: In movies like this (“Saving Private Ryan,” say, or “The Great Escape”), a disparate group of ruffians overcome initial distrust and grow into great friends, drawing on one another’s strength to defeat an intractable foe.
This may sound trite, but it’s done for a reason: If the protagonists don’t care for one another, how are we supposed to care for them? By eschewing this formula, Mr. Lee fails to give us any better reason to cheer for our Buffalo Soldiers than that they’re the “good guys.”
Of course, they’re fighting for the terrible nation of America, the land of Jim Crow and redneck farmers. How good can they be?
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