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MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi
Director: Spike Lee
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Touchstone
Features: See Review
Length: 160 Minutes
Release Date: February 10, 2009
 

“I was the only one left. I’m the only one left who knows. I’m the last.”

“You’re not the last.”

Film ****

Miracle at St. Anna is easily Spike Lee’s most ambitious film to date. It was advertised as a World War II epic crossed with a murder mystery, but it also happens to contain elements of fantasy, romance, and commentary on racism amongst the military. A film with such high ambition usually ends up a failure no matter who is behind the camera, but that’s not the case for Spike.

Critics weren’t too kind to the film when it hit theaters and, as much as I hate to say it, I kind of understand why. There is a lot of stuff going on in this movie, so I can understand criticisms of it being kind of disjointed. However, the overall impact this film had on me was tremendously potent, as is the case with most of Lee’s work.

Based on the novel by James McBride, who also adapted it for the screen, the story opens in Harlem, 1983. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) is a WWII veteran now working at the post office and nearing retirement. One day while at work, Hector spots a man from across his counter. He then pulls out a German luger from his drawer, and kills the man in cold blood.

As the police search Hector’s apartment, they come across a questionable possession in the man’s closet. It’s the head of a statue from Italy that happens to be worth millions of dollars. Rookie reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes to interview Hector in prison to get the story on how such an artifact wound hip in his apartment.

The story then jumps back to Tuscany, Italy in 1944. Hector and his unit, the all black Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division, are met with German fire in a scene that manages to rival the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The way Lee builds towards this moment is mesmerizing, especially with the wonderful music score by frequent collaborator Terence Blanchard, as the soldiers are first greeted by the taunting Nazi propaganda voice of “Axis Sally” before the first fire is shot.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath, Hector and three other soldiers from the unit; Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Train (Omar Benson Miller) find themselves behind enemy lines. They end up hiding out in a small Italian village. The goal is to hide out long enough for the rest of their unit to meet up with them.

A good portion of the story focuses on a friendship that develops between Train and a little Italian boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), whose life he saved prior to taking refuge in the village. Angelo innocently refers to Train as his own “chocolate giant”. And the spiritual Train happens to be carrying at his side the statue head, believing it be a good luck charm.

Another key storyline involves the Nazi’s pursuit of an Italian named Peppi, aka The Great Butterfly (Pierfrancesco Favino), the leader of the anti-Nazi partisans. This actually ties into a sequence which illustrates the title of the film, which is one of the most horrific and shocking scenes of war brutality I’ve ever seen. Though it seems strange that the world “miracle” could be associated with such a moment, you have to stick with the rest of the film to find out why.

The issue of racism is dealt with in a most interesting way, as Pvt. Stamps mentions how ashamed he is to admit he feels more free in a foreign country than back home. The unit’s white commander doesn’t treat them with respect, leading Pvt. Bishop to believe that they aren’t coming to save them. The soldier’s point is made in a pivotal scene that flashes back to when the men were at training camp, and refused service at diner that happened to be gladly serving German POWs. It illustrates a possibility that since their white superiors were unwilling to stand up for them then, how can they expect help from them in a time of war.

Though I stand behind my rating, I will admit that the one area of the film that could have been left out is the romantic subplot. A love triangle seems to develop between Stamps, Bishop and an Italian beauty named Renata (Valentina Cervi). But it’s something that comes and goes, and when it arrives it’s usually at an unnecessary point.

But that’s one minor flaw in an otherwise powerful, multi-layered and stunning work of cinematic art. It just goes to show that a filmmaker of Lee’s stature can make a film so brilliant, that one such flaw can easily be forgiven. And by the end, I was so incredibly moved emotionally by the overall power of the film, that I would’ve been willing to excuse two more flaws had they existed.

The cast is absolutely remarkable. Derek Luke, an actor who continues to impress the hell out of me with each role, delivers his best work yet as Stamps, the soldier who believes in what he is fighting for. Laz Alonso is tremendous in his two-part role as the young and elderly Hector. And I guarantee you won’t soon forget Omar Benson Miller, who can also be seen in The Express, as the bear-like Train and young Matteo Sciabordi as Angelo.

This is indeed one of the best films of 2008.

Video ***1/2

The film is comprised of two different types of film stock, an intent made by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. For the bookend scenes set in 1983, Libatique shot the film in traditional 35mm, while Super 16 cameras were used in shooting the rest of the film The anamorphic presentation from Touchstone serves the multiple formats quite well, though you can expect a much grainier look in the WWII scenes. The image detail is most outstanding and despite being a bit limited due to the film stock, the colors are actually quite effective.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is absolutely stunning! One thing I always look forward to in a Spike Lee joint is another riveting piece of music from composer Terence Blanchard, which is very much one of the highlights here as it guides through both the dramatic scenes and war sequences brilliantly. The battle sequences are definitely going to give your surround sound system a good working. Dialogue is superbly clean and crisp in delivery as well.

Features (Zero Stars)

Nothing to be found here, which is unfortunate given the subject matter and the fact that Lee can usually be expected to at least drop a commentary track.

Summary:

With Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee continues to show why he is one of the most important filmmakers of our time. He succeeds in showing the contribution African Americans made in World War II without being super heavy-handed. And his evolution from independent to big epic filmmaking is something to really be awestruck by.

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