Miracle at St. Anna (Blu-ray)
Directed by Spike Lee
Following the movie's disappointing theatrical run, the revamped marketing for Miracle at St. Anna's home video release features a new tag line: "The untold story of courage and brotherhood."
But don't read too much into that. This is a work of fiction that mixes a serious look at American racism during World War II with ridiculously far-fetched sub-plots that are part Fellini fizz and Disney schmaltz. It's like watching a double feature of widely-disparate tones mashed into a single, confounding jumble of a movie.
Men of war.
Angelo, Train, Bishop - and a marblehead.
The movie starts off strong and with loads of potential. It's 1983, the location: a Harlem post office. A man asks for a 20-cent stamp and the guy behind the counter goes postal. He kills the customer with a German Lugar stashed at his desk.
Why would this quiet gentleman, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, Jarhead), kill the man? The killer has no known enemies, is only three months from retirement, widowed, and earned a Purple Heart while serving for four years in the army during World War II.
Compounding the mystery, when police search Hector's apartment they find an antique marble statue head in a Macy's bag stashed in his closet. A gung-ho journalist anxious to get out of his newspaper's obits department visits Hector in prison and asks him what it's all about.
The murder and the statue's head are inexorably linked together for Hector. The bulk of the movie shifts back to 1944 and recreates the events that ultimately led, 39 years later, to cold-blooded murder.
If Miracle at St. Anna is director Spike Lee's idea of a cinematic response to Flags of Our Fathers, he's really done himself a tremendous disservice. It could be argued that, if it weren't for the fact that Spike directed this hodge-podge, the movie's portrayal of many of the black soldiers would've stoked Spike's ire. This could've, should've been a Saving Private Ryan for the Buffalo soldiers. Instead, it falls far short of that homage to the American troops and presents a collection of soldiers that are hard to care about.
Most irritating is a lothario, Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy, Barbershop), who tends to think with his anatomy more than anything else. There's also a simple-minded, good-natured gentle giant, Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller, Things We Lost in the Fire), repeatedly referred to by a young Italian boy as the "Chocolate Giant." He's really likeable, in the same way Bubba was charming in Forrest Gump.
The other soldiers aren't all that appealing and certainly aren't given all that much to do, aside from snipping about the injustices back home even as they risk their lives on the frontline. On the one hand, they're taunted by Axis Sally's propaganda being seductively spit out over loudspeakers surrounding a strategic river crossing, on the other hand, they're harassed and belittled by their white commanding officers.
As for the main protagonist, Hector, he's the sharpest of the bunch, a man who speaks Italian and seeks understanding of his surroundings, but, as it happens, he's not African-American, he's Puerto Rican.
To Spike's credit, Miracle at St. Anna has a lot on its mind. There are the expected racial tensions as black soldiers fight – and die – for a country whose level of reciprocation is debatable. There's also quite a bit of material about faith and, of course, war and its brutal bloodshed. Thanks to the lothario, there's also a little sex thrown in for good measure.
Trouble is, this all adds up to much, much less than Spike's grand aspirations would hope thanks in large part to a bizarre sense of humor that simply doesn't gel with the movie's overall dark tone. Perhaps the intent was to create something along the lines of Life Is Beautiful, the Holocaust movie starring the irrepressible Roberto Benigni. Alas, when characters die – then don't die – Miracle at St. Anna stops being a war movie and turns into something more like Pay It Forward Part Due.
Spike moves from one vignette to the next, a storytelling fashion that provides some really good moments, such as the very effective opening sequence and a scene in which the black soldiers tear down fascist propaganda posters pasted on a wall in an Italian village. Nice, sincere scenes between Train and the Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi in an excellent debut performance), are full of sweetness and genuine humanity.
Even so, there's nothing here that comes close to Ryan's classic "earn this" finale. The closest this movie comes to greatness is via its opening clips of John Wayne in The Longest Day.
The Bells of St. Anna
At the core of Miracle at St. Anna is a serious question that is never actually raised during the movie. If Negron had killed his victim back in the little Italian village in 1944, it would be a non-issue. Should he be held accountable for doing the deed 39 years later, in the post office?
Instead of tackling that question head on, the story (James McBride wrote the screenplay based on his own book), relies on miracles to create a sense of mysticism and destiny.
Miracles can be used as a cinematic device to evoke wonder, question faith and existence, and reinforce mankind's relative insignificance in the universe. But even so, there is always the danger of it all turning into hogwash.
Unfortunately, that's the primary impact of Miracle at St. Anna. Even with its sometimes gripping wartime backdrop, the miracles – plural – that drive this highly ambitious story come across as a load of bologna. The movie's conclusion comes out of nowhere with a speech about safety devices, car seat belts, an unlikely billionaire, and the argument that "miracles are the only sure thing in life."
An unlikely mish-mash, this one's best left to those who like their feel-good hokum served up with large doses of profanity and on-screen violence.
In an interesting twist, there are no supplemental features on the standard DVD, so the Blu-ray's extra features are all exclusive to the high-def format. Certainly the standard-def slight has to do, at least in part, with the older format's limited storage capacity and the film's hefty 160-minute run time.
Before getting into the extra features, it's worth pointing out Buena Vista has once again front-loaded the release with a smorgasbord of commercials (including an anti-tobacco ad), movie trailers, and DVD previews. Thankfully, one click on the remote allows viewers to jump to the total menus scheme.
The disc isn't heavy on supplements and, more troubling, what the disc really needs – a conversation or commentary track with Lee and McBride that explains the tonal extremes of this project – is sadly missing. Instead, there are two featurettes and a collection of deleted scenes.
On the bright side, all of the supplements are presented in high-def, as they should be at this point in high-def's relatively short history.
Deeds Not Words is a 17-minute roundtable discussion with Spike Lee (decked out in a Barack Obama T-shirt and Buffalo infantry baseball cap), author James McBride and a number of the original Buffalo soldiers who served in Italy. It's definitely worth a viewing and it certainly validates the racial themes presented in the movie.
The Buffalo Soldier Experience is a 20-minute documentary that provides some historical background on the Buffalo soldiers, racism in 1940s America, and the bonding between the Buffalo soldiers and the Italians. It's well-done and thoughtful and it presents the primary wartime story of Miracle at St. Anna in a much more compelling fashion, without all the schmaltz in which McBride doused his characters.
There are also five deleted scenes and four extended scenes, totaling roughly 22 minutes. Given the rambling nature of the movie in its final form, the cuts make sense. Even so, they are fairly interesting and official bits of additional character development. Among this collection, there are two standouts. The clip entitled "Joe Louis!" features the Germans egging on fisticuffs in the river by shouting out, "Max Schmeling!" A lone Buffalo soldier retorts, "Joe Louis!" (The subtitles incorrectly spell the name "Schmelling." A minor detail, yes. But annoying.)
The other clip of particular interest, entitled "Fabiola," features a colorful Italian woman explaining the Mountain of the Sleeping Man before begging the Buffalo soldiers for food. It winds up with a comical bit surrounding the arrival of some pigs for slaughter.
Picture and Sound
The sound design on this release is magnificent. From the opening bells right on through the battle scenes, the English 5.1 DTS HD track is superb. Also available are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks.
Subtitles are available in English (for the hearing impaired), French and Spanish.
The video is equally well-done. Maybe the picture goes a bit soft on occasion, but any issues with the quality rate as quibbles rather than full-blown complaints.
How to Use This Disc
Clear the evening or spread things over two nights, but first watch Deeds Not Words and The Buffalo Soldier Experience. Then watch the main feature and determine for yourself if Spike Lee did justice for the Buffalo soldiers and their service to the United States of America.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.