September 25, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Sir, can't you see this has sitcom written all over it?

Grade: D –

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Early, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Favino, and Matteo Sciabordi

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hour, 40 minutes

There is no doubting the high-minded and long-overdue goal of Spike Lee to pay adequate cinematic homage to the contributions of African-American soldiers during World War II, who fought bravely to protect their country and preserve freedoms they were not even allowed to enjoy. However, the sad truth is that if it had been made by anyone other than Lee, Miracle at St. Anna would be roundly ridiculed and dismissed as a hyper-reductive, racist rant. Written with the sophistication of a Robert Benigni script, this World War II epic failure trades in equal-opportunity stereotyping: all whites are single-minded bigots; blacks alternate between buffoons, oversexed, and/or blinded by uncontrollable violent rage; Italians are histrionic and hot-blooded; etc. At one point, a redneck Army officer (and in Lee’s world, there isn’t any other kind) exclaims, “What is this, a minstrel show?!” Startlingly, I was already asking myself the same question.

Betraying that Lee seems guided more by an impulse to settle a score with Hollywood’s traditional, whites-only depiction of WWII, he opens the film in 1983 with an elderly African-American sitting at home in front of the TV, muttering angry epitaphs at John Wayne’s war pic, The Longest Day. That man, postal clerk Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), later guns down a man who tries to buy some stamps. The question of how Hector was able to keep a loaded Luger concealed behind his post office window for years is never answered. The mystery over why Hector shot the man and why Hector has a priceless statue head pilfered from Florence, Italy decades ago forms the uneasy foundation for the rest of the film.

Rewind back to 1944 and the 92nd Infantry’s “Buffalo Soldiers,” an all-black unit patrolling the Italian countryside. Four members of the company – Hector, dutiful Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), profane horndog Bishop Cummings (Michael Early), and the rotund Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) – find themselves trapped behind enemy lines and forced to hold-up in a tiny Tuscan village.

Along the way, Train, who lugs around the aforementioned statue head everywhere he goes as his personal good luck charm (without explaining how this does not interfere with transport and miles of humping through the European war theater), rescues and semi-adopts an Italian, seemingly magical moppet. There is are extended subplots involving the Italian Resistance, a comely Italian sexpot (Pierfrancesco Favino), and lots of snarling Germans, whose every appearance is accompanied by the sort of brass crescendo normally reserved for James Bond villains. Lee even manages to squeeze in, via flashback to basic training in Louisiana, the de rigueur scene in which some Bayou bigot refuses to serve the black soldiers in his restaurant, followed quickly Lee’s shout-out to contemporary, hip-hop era audience when the soldiers’ return armed with hilt to force the soda jerk to fork over some forbidden ice cream sundaes.

James McBride’s lunkheaded screenplay, adapted from his own novel, is as tone-deaf as it is insulting, reducing the whole of WWII to an extension of America’s race war. Good actors are made to look ridiculous, spouting dialogue filled with non sequiturs, clich├ęs, and era-inappropriate slang; Miller, in particular, plays the sort of Bagger Vance/Green Mile magical Negro Lee would rail against were it in any movie other than his own. Even the numerous battle scenes are staged haphazardly, revealing that no director, even an accomplished one, can just pick-up a camera and shoot a war movie. Through it all, Terence Blanchard’s nail-on-a-chalkboard orchestration is more grating, intrusive, and incongruous than ever, plodding its way through scenes it is suppose to compliment.

The end result is a bloated, meandering misfire that is as unbearable after 20 minutes as it is by the end of its unfathomable 2 hours and 40 minutes running time. When it comes to issues of race, Lee has always been a welcome one-man wrecking machine. In Miracle at St. Anna, the problem is he doesn’t know when to take his foot off the gas.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is disheartening...I Really wanted it to be good.