Miracle at St. Anna (R)
2 1/2 stars out of 4
In 20 plus years, director Spike Lee has established himself as an iconoclastic filmmaker who marches to his own drum and more often than not, makes superb movies. Some have called him the black Woody Allen, which is baffling as the two men have little in common, unless you consider their shared maverick attitudes and New York upbringings.
"Miracle at St. Anna" isn't Lee's best film, but it is easily his most ambitious and in many ways, looks nothing like anything he's ever done before. It has the unfettered air of many classic war films and practically mirrors "Saving Private Ryan" on a stylistic and storytelling approach. Even when it slips up, it's never less than enthralling.
It has been rumored that Lee chose this project after his very vocal dissatisfaction over Clint Eastwood's two 2006 Iwo Jima movies, both which failed to include black soldiers. Eastwood recently responded with a negative retort to Lee's accusatory remarks, which served neither man very well. Enough of the scuttlebutt, let's get to the movie.
Bookended with emotionally charged scenes from the '80s, the meat of the movie takes place in 1944, when four black "Buffalo Soldier" troops get trapped behind enemy lines and end up taking refuge in an unsecured village near Tuscany, Italy.
Senior officer Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) takes a Tom Hanks approach by keeping his soldiers in check while not being excessively rigged. Serving under Stamps are the Italian and Spanish speaking Hector (Laz Alonso), the cocksure Bishop (Michael Ealy) and the extra-sized and largely ill-prepared Sam (Omar Benson Miller).
Sam is the kind of guy you wouldn't want on your side during a debate, but would be very dependant upon in a back-alley tussle. He's so huge he doesn't mind toting around the large head of a statue for good luck.
After getting separated from their unit, the soldiers stumble upon a lost child who Sam takes under his wing and won't let go. His insistence on looking after the child prevents the soldiers from trying to locate their unit, but the others eventually get Sam to agree to relinquish custody once they reach Tuscany.
Once the soldiers settle in to the village and start interacting with the locals, Lee and screenwriter James McBride (who adapted his own novel), shift the focus to a band of freedom fighting Italian guerillas who may or may not be in cahoots with the Nazis. This sub-plot is far more interesting than the main story and before it plays itself out, Lee delivers one of the most emotionally wrenching and disturbing scenes in war movie history. Prepare yourself accordingly.
It's good to see Lee is still stretching as an artist and trying new things but given the movie's pre-release brouhaha, one can't help but take the movie with a tiny grain of salt. Lee has always been a visionary trailblazer but this time out, he seems to be reacting out of spite and it might have prevented "Miracle at St. Anna" from being the classic it should have been. (Touchstone)
Presented in English with occasional subtitled Italian, Spanish and German.