The longest war
Spike Lee’s long St. Anna is long, yet compelling … and long
In Italy during World War II, four American soldiers from the all-black 92nd Division get separated from the other troops during deadly combat in the Tuscan countryside. Local villagers, including a mixture of weary partisans and downcast fascists, give them temporary sanctuary.
Two of the four young men find themselves competing for the attentions of a commanding young beauty named Renata, and another of them becomes obsessed with protecting little Angelo, the traumatized war orphan they retrieve from the scene of a battle. And the four of them have charge of a captured German soldier in whom the partisans, the local fascist sympathizers, and the Army’s intelligence officers all have competing interests.
These four guys—Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the carousing Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), the “chocolate giant” Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) who is Angelo’s protector, and the comparatively mild-mannered Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), who is also Puerto Rican and Catholic—are the heart of the matter here, and the story of their strangely heroic misadventures in a devastating episode of war is the most compelling and rewarding aspect of Miracle at St. Anna.
But it is not the only story in this sprawlingly ambitious movie, and as it turns out, that is both good news and bad news. The narrative abundance of this picture, directed by Spike Lee and scripted by James McBride from his own novel, is a key part of the production’s power and appeal, but in some stretches, it feels as though several different movies are struggling for our attention, sometimes with good reason, sometimes to merely distracting effect.
The Italian characters’ stories make a strong dramatic impression. The villagers, including Renata (Valentina Cervi) and the sad-eyed resistance fighter Peppi (Pierfrancesco Favino), are caught in the crossfire of local history, in ways that both offset and amplify the social and emotional conflicts that emerge among the four soldiers. The back story of little Angelo’s agony is similarly significant.
But while the Italians’ stories initially come off as foregrounded events, they are ultimately relegated to background status in the overall narrative. Indeed, there is even a sense in which all of the World War II material is relegated to background status by the film’s framing story at start and finish—a seemingly inexplicable killing that occurs four decades after the war, in 1983. And several other prominent elements—the miracle of the title, a missing piece of iconic sculpture, assorted bits of myth and magic—have the overall effect of direct questions to which the film can provide only answers so thin they barely qualify as evasive.
It’s a Spike Lee film, and that too is a reason for seeing it. A number of his characteristic concerns—black history, the diversity among African-American males, the dynamics of Italian culture—get further airing here, and a brief glimpse of The Longest Day on TV in an early scene perhaps serves as a signal that we should view Miracle as what a classic Hollywood genre, the war movie, looks like when it becomes a “Spike Lee Joint.”
Be that as it may, the war movie at the heart of this enterprise is plenty good enough to withstand the battering administered by all the other movies and stories so forcefully hinted at in the course of its 160-minute running time.