28 September 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

I'm afraid that this Spike Lee Joint will tank. There's kind of a Spike Lee curse. Whenever he makes a movie that looks like it might find mass appeal, he runs up against all sorts of problems. Some people don't like Spike Lee's movies unless they make really radical, in-your-face statements about race in America today, while other people get all bent out of shape when Spike Lee's movies do make really radical, in-your-face statements about America today. If he makes a political movie, it's too political; if he makes a blockbuster, it's not political enough. Black audiences often criticize Lee for "airing the dirty laundry" of African-American culture, while white audiences get pissed at Lee for his alleged anti-white racism. And everyone seems to think that, every time out, Spike Lee is required to make the best movie ever made, or at least the best movie ever made by a black director.

Miracle at St. Anna is not my favorite war film (that place of distinction might have to go to Apocalypse Now) or my favorite Spike Lee film (my top choice there is probably something of a cliche, but it's Do the Right Thing), but it's a solid addition to both the war film genre and the Spike Lee oeuvre. At its best moments, it offers a stunning depth of insight into both its main characters and its minor characters, as well as a scathing indictment of war, racism, and of America's myopic race memory.

By way of summary (and I have to be careful because the plot of this movie unravels more like a mystery than a standard war film), the movie begins in 1983, with a seemingly unexplicable murder committed by Puerto Rican WWII veteran Hector Negron (played by Laz Alonso). To get the full story of the crime, we have to flash-back to the last years of WWII and the historic 92nd Infantry Division (WWII's version of the "buffalo soldiers," a full division of soldiers of color, led, of course, by white officers). In 1944, we follow the misadventures of four soldiers--Negron, Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) and a little Italian boy they've found, Angelo Torancelli (Matteo Sciabordi). It's only by learning the significance of the Italian village of St. Anna that we can understand both Hector's crime and the "miracle" of the film's title.

I was disappointed and frustrated for, maybe, the first 30-45 minutes of the movie. I just didn't feel like I cared enough about Negron to make the necessary effort to follow his flashback, I lost track of who the old man of 1983 was in the 1944 battle sequences, and I didn't care much about the other members of his division, either. Even when an incompetent, racist American officer allows a platoon of the 92nd to be decimated by Nazi soldiers, I felt the horrors of war, but not the more personal sadness of lost love ones. It was only by inches and flashes of insight that I came to "know" Hector, Bishop, Stamps, Train, and the boy; about an hour into the movie, I realized that Spike Lee's patient gamble paid off, and because I had to fight to know these men, rather than having their personalities handed to me on a stereotypical platter in the first 7 minutes of the film, I appreciated them much more, and felt more closely connected to them than I might otherwise. Because I had to work hard to kind of worm my way into their lives, I saw them as real people, rather than as stock characters in a war film. Consequently, I might scorn Bishop's womanizing and money-grubbing, while still finding him an endearing character; and although I admired Stamps's optimism and "proper" manners, I could see where his naivete made him ill-prepared to handle the realities of life in 1944 America, let alone the War.

As the plot unfolded, I found myself fully immersed in these 4 men and a boy (yeah, it is kinda like one of those comedies from the 1980s sometimes), and I appreciated Lee's critiques of war, which came in a variety of forms:
  • the gruesome, blood-splattered pictures of the casualties--solider and civilian; black, German, Italian--wide-eyed corpses, denied by violence the peace we crave in death
  • noble characters of all nations and ethnicities whose nobility was powerless to stem the tide of blood and inhumanity
  • the pointed conversations where Nazis used the term "terrorist" to justify the slaughter of civilian bystanders.
Also powerful were the many moments when our four protagonists were forced to confront racism in the form of Nazi propaganda, the mistrust of American military personnel, and the everyday bigotry of American civilians.
  • an early, heart-breaking scene in which the Nazi version of Tokyo Rose taunts the 92nd division with vignettes of American racism: your commanding officers don't tell you anything, they don't trust you, back home there are white people raping your wives and sisters and mothers, in Germany you'd be welcomed as men, you're dying for a country that hates you, etc.; even before I really cared about these buffalo soldiers, this propaganda felt like a knife to the heart, and Lee did an astounding job showing the courage of soldiers who recognized the truth mixed in with the lie, but who continued to pursue their mission nonetheless
  • a crisp segue from a "typical" scene of "no coloreds allowed" Louisiana racism to a bank of Nazi propaganda posters, making the wordless comparison between the hate of American white supremacy and Nazi Aryan supremacy
There was a particularly poignant moment that Spike Lee fans will appreciate, I think. In several of Lee's movies, like Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour, and even Inside Man (to an extent), the narrative breaks so that characters can engage in cathartic(?) racist rants about the other ethnicities in the film. In Miracle at St. Anna, there's a montage, somewhat similar in structure, but worlds different in meaning, as characters from every side of the conflict: Italian fascists and Italian Partisans, American solders and Nazi officers pause to pray before the climactic battle. Perhaps the myth that "God is on our side" is the target of Lee's filmmaking here, but there's also a nobility in the sequence that uses sincere religiosity to show the humanity of these "enemies" and the absolute and complete repudiation of humanity that war represents.

I'm sure this movie will be skewered by professional critics and average filmgoers alike. Me, Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors, so I've learned (whether this is wise or responsible or not) to give the man the benefit of the doubt--to trust that he has something important and worthwhile to show me (both thematically and cinematically), so I'm a friendly viewer. Even so, I'm sure people will raise some worthy and negative criticisms of this film. And I'll concede this far: the ending is weak. It's, perhaps, too miraculous, even for a movie with "miracle" in the title. Perhaps Lee can be forgiven for making a happy ending (I'll say no more) out of such tragedy; after all, white filmmakers have been making glorious tales of warfare for a century, and they continue to do so even in our very unsentimental age (you need look no further than the straight-up, vomitous, bullshit-coated propaganda of the Kid Rock video, "Warrior" that preceded St. Anna in the theater where I saw the film). Even so, I'm a big fan of Spike Lee's most frustrating endings, and I found his insistence on tying up loose ends here to be beneath him.

Like I said, though, I'll take the bad with the good, and I'll give Spike Lee an 8 out of 10 for Miracle at St. Anna. (I might have said 7, except that imdb.com users have given the film a 5.1 so far, and I felt duty-bound to up the average a bit!)

Ya Dig? Sho Nuff!

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