Rating: 2.5 stars
Having seen Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, I now want to read the book. No, not because I loved the movie so much, I want the experience to linger, but because I feel like the book might fill in the gaps—in intent, tone, and character development.
Look, it’s safe to say that not all books were made to be adapted for the screen—and James McBride’s war novel may very well be one of them (McBride also wrote the screenplay).
Of course, it’s obvious why Lee did choose to adapt the novel which tells the story of a troop of black soldiers during World War II who penetrate enemy lines into Nazi-occupied Tuscany as white officers keep their safe distance via radio communication (and at first don’t even believe the soldiers made it). Lee has been quite public in his disapproval of Clint Eastwood’s World War II duo—Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers—for not showing a single black soldier. This is his answer to Eastwood, as well as an attempt to make the first serious World War II epic told from an exclusively black perspective.
But the film is all over the map, mixing gruesome battle scenes, with bits of magic realism, far-fetched coincidence, and uneven character development and romance.
Once trapped in Tuscany, the four surviving soldiers seek refuge at a villager’s house, while the troop’s stalwart leader (Derek Lee) and its cynical lothario (Michael Ealy) fight for the affection of the villager’s daughter. A third solider (Omar Benson Miller)—an impossibly decent gentle giant in the mode of sentimental war films from the 50’s—cares for an injured 9-year-old Italian boy he believes to be a Christ-like figure.
It’s pretty telling that the framing device of the story—an old postal worker living in 1980s New York shoots a customer in cold blood—actually involves the fourth, least developed character, Hector (Las Alonso), the troop’s translator.
Many have complained that Steven Spielberg can’t resist a sentimental finish to his films—and he can’t. But at least he gets his sentimentality right. The final, tearjerking moments of Miracle at St. Anna are wrong on many levels—bizarre, hasty, and, as mentioned, involving the character we are least invested in.
Spike Lee is a great filmmaker, so it’s hard to say what went wrong here—too much ambition, not enough time (even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, parts of the film feel rushed) and source material that probably should’ve stayed on the page.
Lost in the clutter are some powerful moments, like when Luke’s character bemoans the fact that he feels more accepted as a black man in Italy than he does in America, the country he is supposed to be defending. This is a story that needed to be told, and Spike Lee seemed like the perfect filmmaker to tell it. Unfortunately, we're only left pondering what could've been.