Spike Lee's films have always been fraught with the potential for greatness and disaster, shuddering with a nervy wire-walking energy that makes them superb when they stay on the narrow space between ambition and execution and gives you a long time to watch the fall when they don't. But that, of course, is what makes them worth watching; for but one example, the only thing more shocking than the realization that there was a musical number in Malcolm X was the realization of how superbly it worked; Lee's films are rarely undeniably perfect, but they are always undeniably his.
So it is with Miracle at St. Anna, a bold, sprawling, messy epic of war and faith set behind enemy lines in 1944, as a group of four African-American soldiers are trapped far from their fellow troops in German-occupied Italy. There are moments here where the film does not work, where you can feel the sharp needle of disbelief or dislocation puncture the film mercilessly, and there are other moments that are not only willing but indeed eager to look at big, challenging, relevant issues of race and power, war and justice, faith and failure. These moments -- and there are many of them -- not only speak to Lee's unwavering skill and commitment as a filmmaker, but also to the singular nature of his talent and will. When Miracle at St. Anna falters, it's in the moments that seem like they could have been crafted by any other film maker; when Miracle at St. Anna succeeds, it's in the moments that could only have been crafted by Lee.
Miracle at St. Anna begins in the near present, as a postal worker seems to recognize one of his customers -- and pulls a gun from his drawer and shoots the man dead. Searching the man's apartment, police find a purple heart -- and a priceless piece of Italian statuary. The murder, the medal, the masterwork; we flash back to 1944 to see where they all came from. Lee plunges us into the blood and thunder thick of battle, and if Sherman told us with undeniable conviction that "War is Hell," then Spielberg told us with similar conviction that, after Saving Private Ryan, war is not only Hell but also shot hand-held, undercranked and then run through a bleach-bypass color correction in post-production. Miracle at St. Anna looks like most modern war movies, yes, but that may be the only way it resembles its peers.
Four soldiers are cut off during a disastrous 1944 Allied advance -- natural leader Sgt. Stamps (Derek Luke), stalwart Corporal Negron (Laz Alonzo), cool-but-nervy Sgt. Cummings (Michael Ealy) and slow, colossal Pvt. Train (Omar Benson Miller). They make their way to the nearest village, where they meet up with the local citizenry and realize that they're in the best possible place to get intelligence about the German column aimed at the American troops. This seems like the sort of stuff of a thousand war films, but Lee (and James McBride's script, adapted from his own novel) carefully, subtly reframes the war not just as a clash between democracies and dictatorships but also as a clash between rulers and ruled. The Italians are suffering under the fascist government they eagerly brought to power; some of the Germans recognize a dislocation between their orders and their honor; the four American soldiers risk their lives in the name of a nation, and an army, that considers them second-class citizens.
This is not what you would expect in a war film from any other American director, and it comes as a welcome reminder that Lee is not like any other American director. Miracle at St. Anna, as the title suggests, is a haunted tale, full of ghosts and portents and visions and legends and prophecy, and Lee makes some of it work and there are parts of it that simply do not. Like Martin Scorsese, Lee is a social realist in love with the look of classic movies, an uneasy blend of sociologist and showman. (Do the Right Thing wasn't just a breakthrough for its unflinching look at the complexities of race in America; it was also because of the energy and vision that exploded out of every frame.) But asking Spike Lee to do magical realism -- spectral visitors materializing between the bullets -- is like asking a brain surgeon to give you blond highlights; not only is it beneath his accomplishments, it's not necessarily within his skill set, either.
There are other elements in Miracle at St. Anna that feel off to me, but I'm more than willing to accept how that may not be because of any failings on the part of Lee or McBride, but rather because I'm simply incapable of wrapping my mind around the brute enormity of war -- and racism -- in the 1940's from a remove of seven decades in time. Miller's Train is certainly from the same mold as Lenny in Of Mice and Men; I couldn't imagine a character so simple being able to serve, but, then again, I wasn't there. I could wrap my head around a scene set on the home front, where our four soldiers are denied counter service at a Southern ice cream parlor while German POW's sit out front, but not around the scene's denouement, which felt strained and stilted.
But then Lee follows that with a shot of our four heroes -- not protagonists, but heroes -- looking right into the camera, weary and wounded and tired: This is what we're willing to do; what are you willing to do to earn that? It's a question all soldiers, and especially these soldiers, have the right to ask; it's a question very few film makers would be willing to ask of us on their behalf. Terence Blanchard's score is haunting; Matthew Libatique's cinematography captures frenzy and grace, brutal slaughter and exhilarating life. The four leads are superb, as well -- each turning potential boiler-plate war movie caricatures into something richer and deeper while still maintaining the movie-style shimmer of archetype and affect. It's taken me a while to write a review of Miracle at St. Anna, probably because I kept thinking about it, turning it over in my head, challenged and confounded by certain scenes and inspired to contemplate and consider by others; in an age where some war movies (and, you could suggest, even some wars) are made to be briefly contemplated and then forgotten, that alone should tell you that Miracle at St. Anna is worth watching for yourself.