Spielberg could do it, of course. And, to an extent, Lee's resident bête noire, Clint Eastwood, already did with his sprawling Iwo Jima diptych. But after that, the list grows short, and even Lee himself might not have managed to pull off such a risky enterprise were if not for the massive success of his highly entertaining 2006 caper picture, Inside Man. So Lee seized on the moment to make not his long-in-the-works Joe Louis project (with a script by Budd Schulberg) or his longer-in-the-works Jackie Robinson biopic but instead an adaptation of James McBride's novel Miracle at St. Anna, about the African-American "buffalo soldiers" who served bravely — and largely anonymously — for the U.S. during the Second World War. Old enough to fight but not white enough to order coffee at a Louisiana lunch counter.
It's a fine idea for a movie, especially given Hollywood's general glossing-over of black contributions to the American war machine. (Excepting oddities like Glory, and a TV movie about the "Tuskegee Airmen" who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, it's only in the canon of Vietnam films that one finds a sustained black presence.) But Miracle at St. Anna is a curious film that only grows more curious (and less satisfying) as it marches along its lengthy course.
The opening scenes already strike a discordant note; just because Spielberg and Eastwood opened their WWII opuses with clunky modern-day framing sequences, did Lee (and McBride, who also wrote the script) feel obliged to follow suit? That's what it feels like as Miracle at St. Anna plunks us down in a Harlem apartment, circa 1983, where an elderly black man watches a television broadcast of John Wayne in The Longest Day and mutters under his breath: "Pilgrim, we fought for this country too." That same man then proceeds to walk into a post office, take one look at the elderly Italian man behind the counter window, pull out a Luger pistol, and splatter the clerk's brains all over the wall. A detective (John Turturro) and a Jimmy Olsen-ish cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turn up at the scene, both of them, inexplicably, sounding like Damon Runyon wrote their lines. Meanwhile, back at the Harlem apartment, some other cops unearth a highly valuable piece of wartime booty stashed in the gunman's closet. And only then is it finally time to cue the flashbacks.
Lee's movie is, unsurprisingly, about what connects these two grumpy old vets and the loot that one of them has been sitting on for four decades — or, rather, that's the clothesline on which the movie hangs its assorted other narrative laundry. With the unwieldy setup finally out of the way, Lee takes us to Tuscany, 1944, where the all-black 92nd Infantry Division fights off, in nearly equal measure, Nazis and racist epithets issued by white commanding officers. Lee stages the first battle scene ably, but without any of the visceral dynamism of the most affecting WWII films (whether from the '90s or the '50s). When the smoke settles, four soldiers — Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Corp. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and PFC Sam Train (newcomer Omar Benson Miller) — find themselves stranded behind enemy lines, where they rescue a young Italian boy trapped in the rubble, and take shelter with a family of chatty, gesticulating, tea-leaf-reading Italian villagers. At which point, you may begin to wonder if Lee really initiated this project or if it only fell into his hands after Roberto Benigni proved unavailable to make it.
Miracle at St. Anna is piled to the rafters with cutesy-kid antics, Olive Garden Italians, Hogan's Heroes Krauts, and even a mythical peasant hero, the Great Butterfly, who's either a terrorist or a freedom fighter depending on where you stand. Not that the soldiers themselves are markedly freer of cliché: Although all four actors perform well under the circumstances, they're hemmed in by familiar archetypes: the polemical, radicalized Negro (Ealy) who delivers lines like "This is a white man's war"; the articulate, "white acting" soldier (Luke) who gets accused of being an Uncle Tom; and the physical giant (Miller) who turns out to be a smiling, childlike simpleton prone to religion and superstition.
An object lesson in Orson Welles' famous maxim that the enemy of art is the absence of limitations, this is an impeccably well-made, no-expense-spared film that never offers a compelling reason for being. There are flashbacks within flashbacks — including a wholly unnecessary one to a racist run-in the soldiers once suffered at a deep-South ice-cream shop — and some rather obvious paralleling of American and Nazi wartime propaganda. Before it's all said and done, there's even a courtroom finale and a grotesquely pseudo-Spielbergian parting shot. Mostly, though, our heroes cool their heels in the titular village for what must only be a few days, but feels like months. In making a movie for the history books, Spike Lee seems to have entirely forgotten about his audience.