© 2008 Ray Wong
Based on James McBride's novel, Miracle at St. Anna follows four black soldiers of the US 92nd Infantry Division during WWII.
Hector Negron (Laz Alonzo) is a postal worker living in New York City. On a fateful day, he shoots an Italian man, Rodolfo (Sergio Albelli) point-blank. Rookie reporter Tim Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in search of a story, follows the trail and discovers that Hector was a decorated soldier with a clean record, and that there's a missing sculpted head of a statue in his closet. The stone head from the Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence is worth at least $5 million in the black market. But what Boyle finds out about Corporal Negron and the story behind the statue is even more fascinating.
It turns out that Negron was part of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, and one of the four soldiers who got trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign in 1944. The other three men were Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Micheal Ealy) and Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller). Train saved an Italy boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), during an attack; he believed the child was a walking miracle and vowed to protect him. Angelo, in turn, got attached to the "Chocolate Giant" and his team, which befriended Renata (Valentina Cervi) and her family, who took them in.
Surrounded by Germans and desperately trying to get help from their platoon, Negron and company tried to survive while Train insisted on keeping the boy with them. However, the villagers thought the boy was a devil child and would bring them harm. Soon, they were joined by a group of Partisans whose brutal attack on the Nazis resulted in a reliation against the village. Trapped with limited weapons and a possible traitor among them, Negron and his men must fend for themselves and the villagers while keeping the boy safe.
As both the older and young Negron, Laz Alonzo (Jarhead) is exceptional. Granted, he's not really the hero in this ensemble piece, but his character, both in the frame as well as the central story, anchors the entire film, with his solid and restrained performance. Derek Luke (Definitely, Maybe) is also excellent as the group's leader, Staff Sergeant Stamps. His resolve and solitude make him the rock. Michael Ealy (2 Fast 2 Furious) is off as Sergeant Bishop -- he is too modern-acting and out of place with the time period. His cockiness also makes his character less sympathetic. The standout, however, is Omar Benson Miller (Shall We Dance) as "Chocolate Giant" Train. His child-like innocence and heroic acts are the emotional core of the story.
The Italian cast does a fine job as well, with beautiful Valentina Cervi (War and Peace) as a love interest, newcomer Matteo Sciabordi as the angelic boy, and Sergio Albelli as Rodolfo. Their performances make us care about what happens to these people, and capture the spirit of the entire story. There are also numerous cameos in various minor American roles, including John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Leguizamo, Kerry Washington, and D.B. Sweeney.
Adapted from his own novel, writer James McBride has weaved an intense and interesting tale. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. Using the Italian partisans as an excuse, the Nazis launched a retaliation killing civilians. The central story, told in flashback, is a riveting piece of history meshed with fictional characters and plot. Unfortunately, in an effort to explain the intricate backgrounds and complexity of characters and events, McBride convolutes everything with excessive exposition and flashbacks. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and the points of view are disorienting.
Also, there are way too many characters (Americans, Germans, Italians, etc. etc.) and soon the story loses its focus, and it's difficult for the audiences to understand what exactly is going on and whom to care about. There are also one too many coincidences and "magical realism" to make the otherwise-realistic drama completely believable. The ending is also predictable and borderline schmaltzy.
Spike Lee's (Inside Man) direction is generally taut and intense. There are key moments that are rife with tension and dread. The violence is extraordinary and appropriate. The cinematography is over all fantastic and eerily poetic. The production is top-notch, of course. Yet Lee is not able to lift the story out of McBride's tangle. The pacing is off as well; there are many moments and plot nulls that slow down the film. At 160 minutes, the film feels unnecessarily long, with way too many threads that could easily have been trimmed. The framing story is slight and inconsequential compared to the main plot -- it almost feels like an afterthought.
There's so much potential for the story, but my doubt lies in the writing -- sometimes it's probably not a best thing for the novelist to adapt his or her own book. McBride tried too hard, and the result is bogged down by the material; even Spike Lee's skillful direction couldn't save it. It could have been a great movie. As is, it's far from being a masterpiece or one of Spike Lee's best. Despite its great intentions, it'd be a miracle if it's got any legs at the Oscars.
Stars: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonzo, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: James McBride
Distributor: Walt Disney/Touchstone
MPAA Rating: R for strong war violence, language, nudity, and sexual content
Running Time: 160 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 6
Production – 8
Total – 7.1 out of 10