cast: Laz Alonso, John Turturro, John Leguizamo, Kerry Washington, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt
director: Spike Lee
153 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Revolver DVD Region 2
review by James A. Stewart
There are some who get up in arms about any movie that deviates from historical accuracy even a smidgen. The cry goes up, ‘It is sacrilegious, man.’ Or somewhere down the line the art is lost to superfluous criticism as Mr Knickers-in-a-twist gets wound up about the badge on the uniform having an eagle instead of a hawk. If you are one of these cantankerous souls you need to avoid acclaimed director Spike Lee’s Miracle At St Anna.
The film tackles the role of the African-Americans in WW2, with the story of a black regiment in wartime Italy – Tuscany to be specific – the focus for the story. The ‘buffalo soldiers’, made famous in song by Bob Marley, are involved at the tail end of a brutal war as Italy begins to falter and Lee, in his inimitable style, shows just how black soldiers were treated during the second Great War: in his opinion anyway.
The film is based on the book of the same name by James McBride and was widely criticised for being factually inaccurate. However, McBride has himself described the work as ‘historical interpretation’ and being “after all, a work of fiction.” All of which makes the hyperbole over the story seemingly pointless. It is the manner of the interpretation that has caused most angst and it is easy to see why.
Historians have called it a false reconstruction of the St Anna tragedy. Lee seems to spend most of his time clashing with anyone who is like-minded, and thus he has created a movie that is a mishmash of strongly worded opinions, brutal war scenes and a set of rather clichéd race and sociological attitudes.
The irony is that the film starts amazingly well with an ex-buffalo soldier shooting a customer in a post office for no apparent reason. Then, the usual requirements for a good film – of why, what’s next, and how – are foisted upon us immediately with the viewer hooked as quickly. This is one of the best openings I have seen in the last ten years. By the end of the movie’s 153 minutes, that initial impact is lost and replaced by nothing more than brutal violence and over-egged racism. In trying to get his point across Lee uses the blunt side of a frying pan to repeatedly hammer home his message to the viewer time and time again.
It would be wrong to dismiss Miracle At St Anna as a spectacle on this basis. Lee, following McBride’s story and script, lands what is a serious point regarding the underplayed role of black America in the war effort somewhat messily and serves to antagonise and undermine their role rather than celebrate. The historical accuracy has already been lambasted but, if you want true to life (if there is such a thing, remember, history is always written by the victors), reminiscing of the war then watch the Discovery Channel. This film has made no claim to be a documentary, as is demonstrated by the rather cheesy ending that tries to tell us that in life we get what we deserve and that two wrongs do make a right sometimes.
What really lets Miracle At St Anna down is the poor direction, jingoistic scripting and general willingness to skew the roles of others, be they Nazis, officers, soldiers or even the mess staff to accentuate the travails the buffalo soldiers within and from outside their own troop. These failings get in the way of what is essentially a worthy story. It is as if Spike Lee decided the best way to make his mark, especially in light of Clint Eastwood’s 2006 film Letters From Iwo Jima which had irked Lee so much, was to shout loud and proud, in the end it appears more like infantile ranting.