An astute student of film history, Spike Lee knows that a war movie doesn't live or die by its battle scenes alone. The lives of the soldiers, and the way they are affected by death, count as much as victory and defeat. Lee is on a mission of his own with Miracle at St. Anna, exploring the experiences of black soldiers in America's segregated armed forces during World War II, whose contributions haven't factored into films like Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (2006).
As his testy war of words with Eastwood proves, Lee remains an activist filmmaker, even though his social conscience has been seen more in documentaries (When the Levees Broke) than feature films of late. Miracle is both a return to the historical cinema of 1992's Malcolm X, and a genre-bending leap into new terrain. Lee's partner here is journalist and musician James McBride (The Color of Water), who adapts his sprawling 2002 novel about the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 92nd Division and their fierce battles with retreating German troops in Italy.
McBride's screenplay attempts to not only convey the perspective of the American soldiers, but also express the exhaustion and resilience of Italian civilians and partisan fighters along with telling glimpses of Nazi foot soldiers and their SS superiors. The decision to include these other stories makes for a more complex and rewarding film, where the Buffalo Soldiers are pawns in an intricate game, with players on both sides underestimating their value.
Like Saving Private Ryan, Miracle at St. Anna is bookended with scenes that take place decades after the end of a war whose events still reverberate in the lives of its participants. In 1983, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) grimly watches John Wayne in The Longest Day on his grainy television before heading off to his job at an ornate Manhattan post office that's crowded with Christmas customers. It's a normal day, until Hector recognizes the Italian man standing at his window, and shoots him dead with a German Luger.
That pistol and the Italian artifact recovered from Negron's Harlem apartment are two of the pieces of an intricate puzzle the audience puts together over the course of 2 hours and 40 minutes. Like Inside Man (2006), Miracle is at its core a twisty mystery with a host of characters whose importance Lee slowly reveals, beginning with a flashback to Tuscany in 1944.
Corporal Negron, a radio operator and translator for the Buffalo Soldiers, is attempting to cross the Serchio River with his company, and it's clear that they're getting it from both sides. The Nazis bring in a radio truck to transmit propaganda from Axis Sally, who alternately taunts and tempts the black soldiers (promising soul food served by fräuleins with jungle fever). Meanwhile, a virulently racist captain refuses to believe 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) when he reports they've crossed the river, and sends artillery raining down on his own troops.
The stalwart Negron and upright Stamps survive, along with smarmy Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and childlike Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), but they're cut-off and still under fire. This uneasy quartet heads into the Apennine Mountains, transporting the injured Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who was rescued by the slow-witted, fiercely protective Train. The battle-wary villagers of Colognora aren't entirely welcoming, but accommodate them.
In a respite from fighting, Lee allows the backstories and personalities of the soldiers to emerge, and brings in the (subtitled) perspectives of both Italians and Germans. Even when Lee seems to meander, this consummate storyteller is piecing together precisely what brought this disparate group of people together for a life-altering encounter.
There are times when McBride's dialogue is clunky, and dashes of supernatural intervention in this fictitious tale come off more like Stephen King (a la The Green Mile) than magical realism. Incorporating a real atrocity (the massacre at Sant'Anna di Stazzema) and the recollections of veterans whose stories have rarely been told has clearly pulled Lee out of his comfort zone.
He's a filmmaker who's always ready to do battle. The ambitious and audacious Miracle at St. Anna proves Lee can also go to war.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.