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Miracle at St. Anna **½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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We Were Soldiers: Lee's Infantrymen battle valiantly to save Miracle at St. Anna

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA
(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi. Rated R. 

There are moments of such indescribable beauty in Miracle at St. Anna that they move you to tears. There are also moments that leave you shaking your head in bewilderment and frustration.

Perhaps James McBride, who adapted his own novel for the screen, was too attached to the sweeping scope of his story to make the sort of judicious edits that were needed. Perhaps Spike Lee’s reach exceeded his usually sure-handed grasp. Whatever the case, Lee’s latest, which re-envisions World War II from the perspective of African-American soldiers ignored in movies like The Longest Day, is ambitious but ultimately undone by needless distractions.

Among them is Lee’s curiously shifty camera, which darts about frenetically at times and then lingers, rather ponderously, on images – a Reichsadler here, a portrait of the Führer there – whose import is obvious enough without visual italics.

Lee is equally heavy-handed with his storytelling. Clearly, he’s got an ax to grind, and with reason. The 92nd Infantry Division’s black soldiers, who helped liberate Italy, have until now never received their cinematic due. But in documenting the racism they endured, both at home and abroad, Lee populates his film with cardboard bigots who drive the point into the ground. (By comparison, the Jews in Passion of the Christ seem positively benign.)

Lee’s best films (Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour, and the underrated Summer of Sam) reflect his passion and skill for intertwining storylines, but juggling genres is trickier business. Here, he incorporates elements of courtroom drama, murder mystery and even a half-hearted love triangle into a movie that would have worked better if it focused simply on the wartime thriller at its core, which is charmingly eccentric at times and genuinely moving in its agonizing denouement.

Miracle follows four Infantrymen trapped in a tiny Tuscan village surrounded by German troops: Train (Omar Benson Miller), a gentle giant whose childlike innocence leads to his budding friendship with an Italian boy; Stamps (Derek Luke), who clings to his patriotism despite his misgivings about America’s racial attitudes; Bishop (Michael Ealy), a smooth talker with bedroom eyes; and Hector (Laz Alonso), the most resilient of the bunch. Their mission, to capture one of the enemy and extract some useful intelligence, seems improbable under the circumstances, but the men dutifully soldier on against daunting odds.

If Miracle at St. Anna features too many one-dimensional characters who seem to exist only to teach a history lesson, the soldiers at the heart of Lee’s story are engaging and intriguingly complex. Their story unfolds at an uneven pace, but when Lee devotes his energy to telling it, casting aside the myriad subplots and flashbacks-within-flashbacks, it is a breathless, harrowing adventure. There is greatness here; it’s too bad you have to pick through the narrative rubble to find it.

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