The Broad View
By Michael Koresky
Miracle at St. Anna
Dir. Spike Lee, U.S., Touchstone Pictures
Spike Lee is awkwardly caught between nobility and pulp with his latest, Miracle at St. Anna. The film plays minute to minute like a Sam Fuller-esque two-fister, but those minutes add up, incongruously, to one hell of a ponderous super-sized epic, overflowing with unnecessary subplots and punched up to inglorious heights of excess. It’s the simultaneous realization of two of the filmmaker’s dreams: to correct the gross historical oversight of a national cinema that for decades has largely denied the presence of African-American soldiers fighting in World War II, and to make an offhanded, old-fashioned Hollywood actioner. Lee splits the difference by situating a “let us not forget” tale of specifically black heroism within an unmistakably tacky throwback.
Lee’s wildly sentimental, occasionally flippant take will undoubtedly come as a surprise to those expecting Miracle at St. Anna to be a sobering look at systematic wartime racism: in adapting James McBride’s novel of the same name, Lee uses the story of the Buffalo soldiers, 92nd Infantry Division, as the springboard for a wide-ranging (to say the least) yarn of betrayal, redemption, spirituality, et cetera (insert oft-trotted out prestige-film catchphrase here), set in and around the peasant villages of Tuscany. The convoluted narrative is dubiously complemented by head-spinning tonal shifts, which range from solemn to downright silly, and it often feels as though Lee is actively trying to discourage a reading of Miracle at St. Anna as an elegy to people from a lost chapter in history; it’s as if he wants to remind us that he’s a filmmaker first and a provocateur last.
Initially this is an admittedly unnerving but somewhat gratifying approach: there’s an insistent anachronism to nearly every exchange in the film, first tangible in its wraparound narrative, set in 1983 (by way of 1948), in which a green newspaper reporter (Joseph Gordon Levitt, trying to play beyond his years and coming off like a wise-ass Jimmy Olson) investigates the sudden and seemingly unprovoked murder in New York of an Italian immigrant, committed in broad daylight and during working hours, by elderly postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo). Sass-talking John Turturro puts in his requisite cameo, as a detective investigating Negron’s case, spouting off “Listen, kid,” and “Wiseguy, eh?” with élan, before uncovering in Negron’s apartment the relic that will set the story in flashbacked motion: the head of the priceless statue, the “Primavera.” (“That means Spring,” handily coughs out a crusty history professor in the following scene.) John Leguizamo, shows up for a quick day’s work, as an art collector in Rome who, upon reading about the discovery of the Primavera, tosses his newspaper out the window, after which it lands, with a Looney Tunes thud, directly on the table of a grave older gentleman sitting at an outdoor café. He reads the story with relish, his face lights up, registering nothing less than “Eureka!,” and he scurries off.
I regurgitate this all to illustrate how far we are from Saving Private Ryan territory: by the time the film transitions to the veteran Negron’s experiences in the war, ostensibly as a way of letting us know how the relic came into his possession, Lee has established an atmosphere of such extravagant, whiplash folly that one could be excused for wondering if we’re watching a near parody. The prelude to the river skirmish Lee soon serves up doesn’t help matters: a trembling, mucus-dripping soldier clutching his gun and crying, “I want my momma! Kill me now!” In classical Hollywood, this type would have been tagged as The Coward, and Lee sees this and raises it, cranking up the hysterics to embarrassing extremes. It’s clear by this point that Lee isn’t functioning on the revisionist level one might have been led to believe by the film’s opening scene, in which Hector, sitting alone in his Harlem apartment, watching images of a Allied-uniformed John Wayne swaggering across his 13-inch screen, rasps out loud to his television, “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too.”
Considering what follows, this launching point feels retrospectively less like a statement of purpose than a desperate rationalization for the film’s being, the ideological life preserver to cling to when, burdened by the weight of too many crisscrossing narratives and tones, the whole ship begins to sink. While there’s something almost charming about the way the film’s pieces don’t fit together (the whole thing is square pegs in round holes), the flighty impracticality of Miracle at St. Anna is ultimately a liability rather than an easily dismissible tonal problem. Drowning in Terrence Blanchard’s traditional, portentous Hollywood instrumentation, Lee’s film is so desperate not to devolve into dry academicism that it overcompensates with wild flourish and glib, ingratiating characterizations.
Even the film’s most memorable standalone moments (and in this film, they’re few and very far between) are typified by a puzzlingly overblown delivery: not long after we’re introduced to the film’s other principals—upstanding Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke); wily, lascivious Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy); and rotund, gentle Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller)—they’re wandering toward a Nazi ambush while the voice of propaganda radio commentator “Axis Sally” blasts across the Tuscan fields with booming loudspeakers. “Save yourselves, Negro brothers. Why die for a country that treats you like a slave?” Sally intones, with charisma and seduction, and then goes on to offer the black infantry home-cooked Southern meals and sexual satisfaction should they decide to defect to the Germans. The scene is stunning, both for its in-your-face race-baiting but also for the shocking historical footnote it plumbs; the reactions on the soldiers’ faces would be powerful enough, but Lee chooses to cut to inside the bunker-like radio station from where “Sally”’s arch broadcast emanates. In Lee’s rendition, “Axis Sally” (played by Downfall’s Alexandra Maria Laria, natch) is a gorgeous woman in crimson lipstick, sexually wielding a cigarette holder; behind her hangs the reddest, most luscious, velvety swastika flag you’d see outside of late Visconti. In reality, “Sally” (née Mildred Gillars) was a wretched, wizened prune, but Lee’s casting is no accidental historical oversight. By this point in the film, it’s quite obvious that Lee is aiming, full-throttle, for the 1940s World War II movie that never was. But the film is neither slavish recreation nor metatextual reconsideration à la Todd Haynes: instead it’s an atonal and rather witless approximation, an auteurist film that only serves to highlight its director’s blind spots.
For instance, if one film were ever to prove the existence of what we might call Spike Lee’s “woman problem,” Miracle at St. Anna would be it. One of the many subplots jostling for space during the film’s unwieldy running time (sandwiched awkwardly between a story of the betrayal of a group of Tuscan civilians by an Italian partisan to the Nazis and Sam’s treacly relationship with an Italian war orphan who repeatedly calls Sam a “Chocolate Giant”—even Vittorio de Sica might have rejected the tyke as too cloying) concerns Aubrey and Bishop’s flirtation with a local peasant girl, Renata. Played by Valentina Cervi, Renata might be the most risible creation in a film overflowing with forthright artificiality. Perfectly coiffed, with remarkably contemporary makeup and hair that hardly ever get mussed, Renata is a fantasy (as if to reiterate the point, Bishop constantly reminds us: “Damn, she fine!”), draped in tight, dry-cleaned cardigans that appear to have been selected from the 2006 JC Penney catalogue. When not parading around topless (while doing laundry!), she gives in to the oversexed, gold-toothed Bishop’s come-ons, leading up to a wholly unnecessary street scuffle between Bishop and Aubrey. Loose cannons and loose women: Lee does his characters no favors. And (spoilers) as if to reiterate the sheer expendability of Bishop, Aubrey, and Renata, all three end up dead not long after.
In fact, Lee shows a stunning lack of interest in any of these people (so infrequently does Lee allow actor Miller to rise above type that Sam might as well have been named “Fatty”), even Hector, who, though seemingly given the moral weight of the narrative to shoulder, gets completely lost in St. Anna’s shuffle of wayward plot lines—it’s his flashback after all, and what is the Primavera statue if not his version of Titanic’s “Heart of the Ocean”? Even Lee’s supposedly sobering close-ups of massacred dead bodies carry little impact, so underlined are they as Moments of Import and so thoughtlessly graphic are his images—especially grotesque is a shot of a baby trying to suckle from the huge upturned breast of its dead mother, slaughtered by Nazis (and if you’re counting, that makes three bare tits). And, as has become the norm with war films of recent years, the faintest trace of forced present-day allegory creeps in—speaking of a group of Italian partisans, a Nazi commandant blares with Bushlike fortitude: “Terrorists are not protected by the Geneva convention!” Groan.
Lee has been in the past criticized for painting in broad strokes, and the often shattering effect of much of his work depends on how that broadness is utilized. For a film like Bamboozled, it’s fortifying, the krazy glue holding together a fitfully angry contemporary media satire; conversely, Summer of Sam, which should have more clearly and casually surveyed its setting and people (contained as it was within a limited space and time), could barely function as any sort of viable social commentary, so reeking was it of unflattering Noo Yawk caricature. However, the litany of racial and sexual stereotypes that stood in for coherent narrative in Summer of Sam wasn’t just a minor bungle or the mistake of an erratic auteur: Lee traffics in types as often as he genuinely shares in the fears and delusions of his characters, and he’s gone so far in either direction that he’s provided more than enough fuel in the past three decades for both his detractors and fervent admirers. Though I place myself squarely in the latter camp, it’s admittedly hard at times to excuse some of his creations, whether it’s Jada Pinkett Smith’s righteous, mannered businesswoman turned vengeful harpy at the climax of Bamboozled, Adrien Brody’s ambisexual CBGB scarecrow in Summer of Sam, or She Hate Me’s cadre of baby-craving lesbians who become all atwitter at the sight of an impressive male member; all too often Spike Lee will sacrifice rationality to move along story, and this can rightly be seen as a cheat.
Of course, sometimes Lee’s head-on tactics are not only earned but necessary, as there are very few other American filmmakers whose anger translates to the screen with such lightning-quick precision, and none are better at detailing through cinema how our vision (as viewers of films and as citizens of the world) is tainted by our willingness to generalize, subordinate, and racially profile others—Edward Norton’s eloquently angry lavatory rant in 25th Hour; Harvey Keitel and John Turturro’s incessant “bathroom-break” banter in Clockers; virtually all of Do the Right Thing. His lacerating directness is often a fairly good justification for his narrative broadness. Sadly in Miracle at St. Anna, the broadness remains, but the urgency is largely gone.
The drastic inelegance of Miracle at St. Anna would be defensible under the rubric of pulp filmmaking, but stretched out as it is to interminable “prestige” length the film loses all association with the lower-grade aesthetic and storytelling that might have given it a pass. Faithfulness to its source novel is almost certainly a culprit—judicious snipping of McBride’s overlapping plots would have been immensely helpful in wading through this muck. But even when Spike Lee would seem to be “in his element,” as in a thematically crucial, if narratively superfluous, flashback to the soldiers encountering unimaginable racism on their own home turf, at a segregated diner called Herb’s Ice Slops, he’s hampered by the overall glibness the film’s been finely honing throughout. By the time the film reaches its cornball, Shawshank-cribbed conclusion (shimmering, redemptive blue ocean and all), and Alonzo’s aged Negron is blubbering through his barely taped-on neck bloat, one might forget that this was a film about race in America at all.