An important story indifferently told, Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" shows what happens when a film's execution does not measure up to its ideas.
The notion behind "St. Anna" is to create an epic World War II drama celebrating the largely forgotten exploits of African American infantrymen known as Buffalo Soldiers and to explore the complex dynamics of fighting for freedom in what was essentially a segregated Army.
To tell that larger story, however, another more plot-driven tale had to be found, and, as scripted by James McBride from his novel, the result comes up short. Pedestrian and awkward, this film is a disappointment not only in comparison with Lee's earlier epic, the underrated "Malcolm X," but also in comparison with another film with similar aims, Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory."
A prize-winner at Cannes for its ensemble acting, this French-Moroccan-Algerian co-production tells the similarly hidden story of the massive North African troop participation in World War II so well that it brought about a change in French government pension policy. "Days of Glory" is precisely the kind of emotional, significant film "St. Anna" would like to be but isn't.
"St. Anna" opens in 1983 with an aging Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) watching John Wayne in "The Longest Day" on TV and stating the film's premise when he talks back to the Duke and says, "Pilgrim, we fought for this country too."
The next scene has Negron at his job behind a window at a Manhattan post office. Someone comes up and asks for a stamp, Negron recognizes him, he recognizes Negron, and the previously mild-mannered clerk reaches for a revolver and shoots the man dead.
No one, not even intrepid young reporter Tim Boyle (an underused Joseph Gordon-Levitt), can figure out why Negron, a Purple Heart-winning World War II veteran, pulled the trigger or why a valuable Italian marble head is sitting in a shopping bag in his closet. But flashbacks that take up most of the film soon reveal the news behind the news.
Back we go to Italy in 1944 and the men of the all-black 92nd Infantry as they attempt the perilous crossing of the Serchio River in Tuscany. Providing an aural backdrop are the pointed gibes of Nazi radio broadcaster Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara), who tauntingly asks them, "Why die for a nation that doesn't want you?"
In point of fact, some of the strongest parts of "St. Anna" are when it touches on the realities of the racial aspects of the soldiers' experience, whether it be coming across blatant caricatures in Nazi wall posters or when Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (an effective Derek Luke) comments on feeling more free in Italy than he does back home.
Stamps is one of four soldiers who survive the crossing and find themselves behind enemy lines in the tiny but friendly Italian village of Colognora. The others are the cynical, womanizing Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), our old friend Hector Negron and the man-mountain Pfc. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller).
Train is so big his comrades call him "sniper bait," and Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), the young Italian boy he befriends, thinks of him as the Chocolate Giant. Angelo lives largely in an imaginary world, and the bond he forms with Train is part of what Lee considers the "lyrical, mystical" elements of the story, aspects that are better read about than experienced.
"St. Anna's" plot gets more complicated and more contrived. Included are a local guerrilla leader improbably known as the Great Butterfly ("The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian's" Pierfrancesco Favino), German atrocities and a rivalry for the attentions of local beauty Renata (Valentina Cervi). Even if you agree that it's well past time that the historical wrongs this film illuminates be finally righted, you can't help but wish they could have been righted with a better film.
"Miracle at St. Anna." MPAA rating: R, for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. In general release.