News From Terre Haute, Indiana

At the Movies

September 24, 2008

Ambitious 'Miracle at St. Anna' never hits targets

HOLLYWOOD — In Spike Lee’s long and eclectic career, “Miracle at St. Anna” is easily his most technically ambitious film.

After acclaimed character dramas (“Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing”), some ill-fated comedies (“Bamboozled,” “She Hate Me”) and even a documentary or two (”4 Little Girls”), Lee takes on a big, old-fashioned war picture. It’s hard not to appreciate the fact that, after a quarter-century of making movies, he’s chosen this time to leap so boldly away from his comfort zone.

But he might not have been ready for the enormity of such a project. “Miracle at St. Anna” is wildly unfocused in terms of tone and, at two hours and 40 minutes, it is unjustifiably overlong. Lee didn’t write the script — that’s the work of James McBride, who based the screenplay on his novel of the same name — but he didn’t rein in his writer, either, perhaps because he feels so strongly about the subject matter.

“Miracle” tells of the men of the 92nd Infantry Division, black troops who served in Italy during World War II and were known as Buffalo Soldiers. Lee has long been critical of films about the war such as Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” for depicting only the white U.S. soldiers who fought. This is his response — voluminous and full of unmistakable anger.

That’s not the only emotion that emerges in loud bursts. In following four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller), Lee jumps from visceral battle scenes to intimate drama to lighthearted comedy.

Regardless of the situation, though, he smothers everything, as usual, in the distractingly horn-heavy score of his longtime collaborator, composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Since this is one of his preferred tactics, Lee obviously isn’t interested in hearing that he undermines himself with such bombast at every turn.

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