October 2, 2008

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Miracle at St. Anna (R)
Spike Lee blends a mystery story with a World War II epic in Miracle at St. Anna, an uneven but engaging sprawling tale.

We first meet a gray-haired Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) as he watches John Wayne lead the troops in a World War II movie on TV. Lead the white troops, a fact that causes Hector to angrily mumble out “we fought for this country too.” Later, we see him working the stamp window at the post office, where, when an old Italian man asks him for stamps, Hector stares for a moment , says “you!” and then pulls out a gun and shoots the man. Why? A question by a reporter opens up the flashback that offers the extended answer to the why.

In 1944, Hector was a “Buffalo Soldier,” a regiment of African-American soldiers who fought, among other places, in Italy. We meet his company as they are attempting to cross a river, on the other side of which are German soldiers, well armed and dug in. “You don’t see any white soldiers here, do you?” says the sinister female voice of Axis Sally, the German answer to Tokyo Rose, played over a loud speaker to demoralize the advancing American soldiers. She needn’t have bothered with the demoralizing — the white officer managing the operation, Capt. Nokes (Walton Goggins), does a good enough job. He sets up his post too far from the action to get a good look and then he ignores a call for fire on the other side of the river (he assumes the men who say they’ve made it across are lying) and fires instead on the wrong side, helping the Germans to kill off the American soldiers. Four soldiers, however, make it alive to the other side: Hector, Bishop Cummings (Michael Early), Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) and Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), who has the highest rank and becomes the group’s leader.

After coming together, the group assesses their situation — they’re on the wrong side of the river, they can’t get in contact with their base, they’re surrounded by Nazis and they’re carrying a wounded Italian boy, who Sam found in a barn. They make it to a nearby village where they knock on the door of Ludovico (Omero Antonutti), perhaps the only Fascist left in Italy. Luckily, it is also the home of Renata (Valentina Cervi), who speaks a bit of English (and, incidentally, is quite the looker). Between her English and Hector’s Italian (he’s Puerto Rican, we learn, and sort of knows Italian), they are able to find out that there is limited chance to escape the town without being caught and that the young boy’s name is Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi).

There are oodles of other characters — racist white American officers and white officers who roll their eyes at these anti-integration buffoons; evil Nazis, a Nazi whose conscience can’t take what he’s been asked to do and Nazis who just wearily want the war to end; Italian partisans who are nearly consumed by guilt about things they’ve done in the war and partisans who are guilty of treachery. And dozens of small scenes that are stories in themselves — the four soldiers going for ice cream sundaes at a diner in the American South and being refused service by the redneck owner while German prisoners of war sit comfortably at a booth; partisans talking about how one was forced to kill the other’s brother because he was a Fascist; Angelo’s many discussions with his imaginary friend Arturro … so many small scenes I couldn’t describe them all here. So many characters and scenes and subplots that it starts to become a bit of a problem for the movie, which is nearly three hours long but still feels crammed with bits and pieces, from the minor characters to the Michael-Bay-esque score. There is an overly expansive feel to the movie, with “oh and also”s and “meanwhile”s and flashbacks within the main flashback. This clearly is an epic, but it has become so epic in scope that some of its parts are unfocused and too wide-ranging.

For all its excesses, the movie never completely loses what seems to be its motivation. In all the “greatest generation” talk about World War II veterans, there should be some greater level of greatness for the soldiers who fought overseas even though their families back home were stuck in an internment camp or on a reservation or in the back of the bus. It’s one thing to fight for your country; it’s another thing to fight for your country in spite of the way it treats you. Even when the story seems to wobble and quiver, Lee is able to focus like a laser on the suck of that situation. Righteous anger is the brightest color on his palette, and whatever else is blurry in this story those lines are always sharp and crisp. There is more to history than John Wayne would have you believe, the movie seems to say.

Because of this and because even the over-dramatized moments have pieces of history in them worth remembering, Miracle at St. Anna is compelling despite its faults. Even when the story seemed to wander, it still held my attention, and even when it seemed to switch its gaze away from the main characters, it presented characters who kept me interested in wherever the story was going (even when the story didn’t seem to know where it was going). Perhaps the greatest compliment to the movie is that it made me interested in the 92nd Infantry Division of Buffalo Soldiers and its role in World War II history. B-

Rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Directed by Spike Lee and written by James McBride (from a novel by McBride), Miracle at St. Anna is two hours and 40 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.