Director Spike Lee wins a lot of battles in his new film, the World War II–set “Miracle at St. Anna,” but he ultimately loses the war. A powerful cast delivers, and many individual sequences stand out, so it’s too bad that the sum total of the project feels so muddled and excessive.
The film begins in 1983, with elderly veteran and post office employee Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) recognizing an old man who steps up to his window and then shooting that man in the chest with a German luger. The mystery deepens when the police find the long-lost head from a priceless Italian statue in Hector’s apartment. An eager young cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, saddled with gee-whiz dialogue that even Dick Powell might have choked on) tries to get Hector to tell his story, but he won’t talk. He does, however, vault into a flashback that takes up most of the film.
Hector was a radio man with the African-American Buffalo Soldiers during World War II, and we see several companies trying in vain to cross a river in Italy, where Nazi snipers pick most of them off. Hector makes it across with three fellow soldiers — Staff Sergeant Staples (Derek Luke), ladies’ man Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and the hulking and good-natured Pvt. Train (Omar Benson Miller) — but since their redneck commanding officer refuses to believe that they actually made it across, he provides them with no backup.
Train rescues 8-year-old Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) from a barn, and he seems to bring the soldiers good luck. The quintet arrives at a small Italian village surrounded by Nazis and tries to figure out their next step, eventually getting tied up with a group of partisans while Staples and Cummings compete for the attentions of the beautiful Renata (Valentina Cervi).
Screenwriter James McBride adapts his own novel, and that’s one of the script’s many problems — there’s an army of minor characters, subplots, red herrings and MacGuffins that could easily have been jettisoned, but McBride obviously loves his own creation too much to trim it down. (“Miracle at St. Anna” runs an unwieldy 160 minutes — someone like Sam Fuller could have delivered an 85-minute film that covered all the bases.)
In addition to some Screenwriting 101 mistakes — this is Hector’s flashback, but it contains many sequences and conversations he couldn’t possibly have known about — the script never states its points about racism when it can overstate them. The men have conversations about the roles of blacks in American society that play like didactic platitudes stitched together, and the scenes of institutionalized racism would feel more effectively disturbing if they were presented as business-as-usual and not flecked with cracker spittle.
Still, there are moments that transcend the film’s problems, including the devastatingly graphic battle sequences, a horrifying massacre of innocents, and the propaganda broadcasts of “Axis Sally” (Alexandra Maria Lara), who urges the Buffalo Soldiers to stop fighting for a country that treats them like second-class citizens. Many of the quieter moments between characters (Staples and Renata, Tree and Angelo, etc.) also hit just the right note. While the cast is uniformly excellent, it’s worth highlighting Sciabordi’s moving and underplayed turn — it’s one of the best juvenile performances in recent memory.
More’s the pity, then, that those great moments are ultimately outweighed by the ones that don’t work, all the way to the would-be tearjerking climax. Lee’s creative passion is apparent throughout “Miracle at St. Anna,” but the screenplay lets him, and the audience, down.