After a much publicized feud between Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood over Flags of out Fathers, Lee set out to make his own war film that focused on the black Buffalo Soldiers in Italy during WWII. Unfortunately, the end product is overlong, confusing, and not particularly entertaining. It does manage to get its message across and it’s a story that deserves to be told, but this is not the way to do it.
Based on the novel of the same name, Miracle at St. Anna tells the story of the all-black troop trapped in Italy, housed with an Italian family. However, the plot is book-ended by a story from 1983, that of Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) killing a man at a post office. Not only does this lead to utterly pointless cameos from John Leguizamo and John Turturro, it adds nothing to the story other than confusion. When the ending finally comes along, it’s still unclear why the murder happened, where he ends up, or why any of this was necessary in the first place.
Likewise, the central story that fills much of the film is also a bit of mess. The constant jumps in time are irritating, and the story would have offered a better flow had it been done chronologically. As it stands, much of the movie is spent trying to figure out what happened instead of concentrating on the current situation.
Action is brief but well handled. There are only two major sequences which bookend each other like the ’83 portion of the plot. They’re intense, bloody, and engaging. It doesn’t revolutionize the war film, nor does it change the modern formula, but they’re handled better than everything else.
Long, drawn-out dialogue sequences rarely add much to the film. At close to three hours, there are numerous obvious cuts, include a romance sub plot that feels tacked on. Character development is excellent, creating individuals out of the soldiers instead of stereotypes. Still, it’s too much, and the supernatural element should also have been left on the cutting room floor. A brief diner scene comes off as being unnecessary and out of place given how it’s inserted into the script.
St. Anna tells a worthwhile story, but it’s hard to shake the feeling at times that’s it’s trying too hard. The sacrifices made by the real life soldiers deserve better than a film made as the result of a Hollywood spat. That’s what it feels like.
St. Anna does deliver in terms of video. This is a clean, razor-sharp presentation. Contrast is nothing short of perfection, with deep blacks and properly calibrated whites. Color is saturated well despite the muted look. Flesh tones are perfect. Detail is outstanding, from the stitching in the uniforms to the obvious make-up used on Alonso during the ’83 scenes. The gritty look of the war scenes are intact, with thankfully no noticeable over processing to ruin the visuals.
For a war film, this is a surprisingly downbeat audio mix. The few action scenes offer limited range, with minimal surround support. Amibiance is rare, with most of the film sitting in the center channel. Dialogue is noticeably quieter than the action, requiring volume adjustments when the guns start firing. Bass is non-existent as artillery drops, yet kicks in for the soundtrack.
Extras are thin but excellent. First is a roundtable discussion with WWII veterans at an American Legion post in Harlem. Spike Lee and writer James McBride sit down and discuss the war experience with these veterans for over 17 minutes. Buffalo Soldier Experience is a 20-minute look at the real squad, from their start in the Civil War to the events depicted in the film and on. It’s well-done material. Finally, four deleted and four extended scenes run over five minutes without adding much. However, with the movie approaching three hours, couldn’t of hurt either.