By Alan Scherstuhl
Much of what critics have said about Miracle at St. Anna is true. Spike Lee's two-and-a-half-hour drama about four African-American soldiers stranded behind enemy lines in World War II Italy is too long. At its undisciplined worst, it feels like someone crammed half a dozen scripts into a wood chipper set on overdrive.
What a two-star review such as that by Kansas City Star critic Robert Butler fails to convey: corny and bloated as it is, the bad stuff isn't that bad, and the good stuff is thrilling in ways that only a Spike Lee movie would dare. It's not a perfect movie, but it is a moving and important one.
Take an early sequence in which the squad of black soldiers crosses a river at the German lines. Their racist white superior has sent them in first because he considers them expendable. As the Buffalo Soldiers troop slowly through the water, and as the enemy takes position in the forest around them, the Germans broadcast propaganda straight from the Fatherland: luscious, pale-skinned princess “Axis Sally” hectors the soldiers directly, asking why they are risking their lives to defend a country that hates them. Lee lingers on the fearful faces of his soldiers. The effect is harrowing. It's also stirring. Here are men at war for a country they hope one day might love them back.
Of course, this race-conscious version of Axis Sally is a Lee invention. But the director's insistence on straining credulity is part of what makes him occasionally great. Absolute realism denies his vision. His movies include daring, revelatory moments not meant literally to have happened in the narrative itself: the back-and-forth sex scene in Mo Better Blues, the son-to-father baskteball toss that closes He Got Game, the strings of racial epithets delivered straight to the camera in Do the Right Thing and The 25th Hour. Even When the Levees Broke, his masterpiece documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, includes New Orleans residents speculating that the government might have blow the levees to protect the wealthier parts of town. Lee doesn't endorse this or even imply that it is likely. He includes it because it is the strongest example of just how shattered some people actually feel.
Other critics have made some complaints about Miracle that are worth addressing.
* That Lee's portrayal of the racist white upper brass is cartoonish and that a sequence in which uniformed black soldiers are refused service in a Louisiana diner is too broad. I ask these critics, what was subtle about the racism of the 1940s? White critics, please. Have you ever talked to your grandparents?
* That Lee's Buffalo Soldiers spend too much time gabbing about life, death and race -- all things that black soldiers stranded in an Italian town would probably talk about. The speeches aren't all that windy, and they're squarely in the tradition of the what's-it-all-for? talk that has marked war movies for decades. Lee gives his black soldiers the chance to do all the things white soldiers have always done onscreen. Even with this mission, much of the film's running time comes from his insistence (as in Do the Rght Thing) of humanizing everyone. Lee includes several "good" white officers, and he even presents his Germans as conflicted.
The worst moments don't sink far below the low points of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. But they're also something new, at least for Lee: scenes that feel like they might have come from any other director's big-budget World War II drama.
Next to most war films, they might stand tall. The biggest problem with Miracle is they instead stand next to the balls-out, grab-at-greatness bravura of scenes like that river crossing -- scenes impossible for anyone but Spike Lee.
Not every local critic has bagged on Miracle at St. Anna. Shawn Edwards gives it five popcorn bags out of five. By overesitmating even more than Butler underestimates, Edwards commits the sin that the dumbest of white people always accuse Lee of: letting an agenda get in the way of the art.