In flashes, the World War II saga "Miracle at St. Anna" reminds you of the necessity and invention of director Spike Lee. He may shoot this feature, like many before it, every which way, but he scores just often enough to ensure a few indelible images. Among them are a towering overhead shot of two dusty Louisiana roads, providing a literal crossroads for a car full of African-American soldiers about to head overseas; a helmet floating down a river near a carnage-strewn battlefield in Italy; a prayer montage, reminding us that prejudice whips up a torrent of bloody differences where there really aren't any, under the skin.
Around the midpoint of "Miracle at St. Anna" two of the four main characters, behind enemy lines and separated from the rest of the Army's Negro 92nd Division—the Buffalo Soldiers by nickname—mingle with the Tuscan locals in the village of St. Anna di Stazzema, at a nighttime celebration. The correlating passage in McBride's novel has Sgt. Stamps (Derek Luke in the film) observe: "They got it, he thought. They understood it. Love. Food. Passion. Life's short. Pass me a cigarette. Gimme that grappa. Live a little. They were like coloreds without the jook joints." The way Lee shoots this scene, the actors take a breath and connect with the deeper recesses of the material. And for a few minutes "Miracle at St. Anna" really does feel like an intimate epic.
It's maddening, then, that so much of the picture, which stretches novelist James McBride's trim 290-or-so-page novel out to 2 hours and 46 minutes, cancels out the good stuff. Half the time I wasn't sure what Lee was going for in terms of tone, or style, or focus. It was a tricky assignment to begin with, because McBride's novel, and his screenplay, is part socio-historical corrective, part magical-realist folklore, part wartime procedural. But too much of "Miracle at St. Anna" feels like parts and pieces from other movies. The rhythm is lurching, uncertain. In the book McBride whipped through the prologue, setting everything up in less than three pages. On-screen, Lee and company seem to take forever with it.
The 1944 Tuscany part of the story follows four African-American soldiers who survive a brutal ambush waged by the Nazis, little thanks to the worst of their Anglo superiors who don't want any part of the Buffalo Soldiers. Luke's taciturn, grave-looking Stamps is joined by angelic, childlike Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller); radio operator Cpl. Negron (Laz Alonzo); and lecherous, smooth-talking Sgt. Cummings (Michael Ealy). When Train saves an orphan boy (Matteo Sciabordi) after the Germans shell an abandoned farmhouse, the men come into contact with the villagers of St. Anna, represented, in "dishy war romance" terms, by Renata (Velentina Cervi).
Lee casts a wide net, as McBride deals with the anti-Mussolini rebel known as "the Great Butterfly" (played by Pierfrancesco Favino, in the film's most conventionally heroic role). Much is made of the precious Italianate statuary found in the Harlem apartment of one the main characters who settles an old score in the 1983 prologue. The character is first seen watching John Wayne win World War II on TV (he's watching "The Longest Day"), angrily. Another whitewash job, he mutters. "Miracle at St. Anna" is designed to set straight one part of a vast historical record.
When you recall Lee's finest documentaries, notably "4 Little Girls" and "When the Levees Broke," you realize that the subjects themselves were only half the reason for the success. Lee doesn't put all his elaborate, try-anything techniques on the shelf when he does a documentary, but he's more sparing and purposeful about his visual attack. And that's what "Miracle at St. Anna" desperately lacks: selectivity. The acting is in one key (some egregiously overstated); the battle scenes carry undeniable power, but composer Terence Blanchard hits all the crashing climaxes as if it's D-Day and he's hitting the beach with 101 strings, with 102 brass instruments right behind. And no, I don't like it any better when John Williams goes for the throat that way.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Miracle at St. Anna."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times