In 2006, Inside Man, and its $185 million worldwide gross, seemed to augur an occupational shift for director Spike Lee. Working within the loose confines of a tony yet straightforward genre piece seemed to suit him. Being freed from the shackles of more overt social commentary allowed Lee to craft his most cogent, confident narrative feature in years.
Lee’s new film puts the brakes on that career makeover. A clunky, overlong and all-around bizarrely plotted World War II melodrama, Miracle at St. Anna feels, above all things, like a fantastically unlikely yet still true memoir hewing too closely to its source material, out of some sense of solemn over-regard. Learning that author James McBride’s book, which he adapted for the screen himself, is in fact a work of historical fiction makes the film’s choices all the more perplexing.
The movie opens in 1983, with what seems like the murder of an innocent man at a Harlem post office. After an artifact from the oldest elliptical arch bridge in the world is discovered in the apartment of the arrested killer, the rest of the story winds back in time, detailing the travails of a small group of soldiers from the all-African-American 92nd division who get stuck behind enemy lines crossing a river in Tuscany, Italy in September, 1944.
Led by Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the group stumbles across a wounded young Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi), who latches onto Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a lumbering simpleton who carries with him a statue head that he believes renders him invisible. As the unit holes up and awaits word from their commanders, they also come across a variety of townspeople and Italian resistance fighters, some helpful and some clearly concealing secrets.
With both the awkward present day framing device and the back story of the little boy, Lee and McBride obviously want to evoke parallel mysteries, yet there’s no there’s involving hold to these yarns, mystical or otherwise. Lee’s penchant for never letting a point lay softly is also on ripe display in a few speechifying flashbacks-within-flashbacks, during which the movie completely grinds to a halt.
Miracle at St. Anna aims to be at once a mystery, a lyrical war drama, and a mystical, Cinema Paradiso-style tale of cross-cultural connection. Despite a few effective passages, it succeeds in sum at none of these endeavors, and is instead stuck in this weird state of limbo — not pulling off the magical realism that a director like Guillermo del Toro might have more success in conveying, and not really connecting as a war drama either. Miracle at St. Anna possesses many of the component parts of an idiosyncratic, air-quote important work, but it never gels into anything other than a casserole of jarring, jangly, disparate tones. Strangely, and perhaps a bit sadly, the film makes one yearn for the return of Spike Lee, hired commercial hand. (Touchstone, R, 147 minutes)