Entering a theater showing a Spike Lee Joint demands a certain amount of faith and stubborn optimism, in that you never know which Spike showed up on the set this time. Was it the iconoclastic yet disciplined maverick who channeled his righteous anger into such modern classics as Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour? Or was it the overbearing, self-indulgent churl whose well of bitterness poisoned the likes of Girl 6, Bamboozled and She Hate Me? That Lee’s latest film, Miracle at St. Anna, was adapted from a James McBride novel about black soldiers who fought in World War II was clearly cause for potential concern. And yet, even though I was steeled for a tetchy lecture on America’s sad legacy of racism, this movie’s sledgehammer didacticism fairly pounded me out of my seat. You know you’re in for a long haul (at nearly three hours) when the opening scene depicts an elderly black man watching John Wayne vs. the Nazis in The Longest Day and muttering aloud, “We fought for this country, too.”
Before long, that elderly dude, who works at a post office, has pulled out a Luger and blown away another old man who’d stepped up to the window looking to buy a roll of stamps. From this ’80s-set prologue, Miracle at St. Anna then flashes back to wartime Italy to explain the history behind that apparently random act of violence. The future postal worker, Corporal Hector Negron (played as a young man by Laz Alonso), winds up trapped in a rustic Italian village along with three fellow members of the 92nd Infantry Division, the famed “buffalo soldiers.” In accordance with federal regulations involving mediocre war movies, each of these men is assigned precisely one trait: Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) is the idealist; Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) is the cynic; and Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the enormous, good-hearted simpleton who seems to have wandered in from The Green Mile.
To a certain extent, the characterization issue may be endemic to the genre; I had similar complaints about the much-lauded 2006 import Days of Glory, which told the story of Algerian soldiers who fought for the French in WWII, also focusing on four one-dimensional grunts. But Days of Glory looks like Paths of Glory compared to this soggy, interminable botch, which gets mired in the Italian village for a small eternity between heaping helpings of battlefield gore. Stamps and Cummings both fall for the same hotcha local, played by Valentina Cervi; their divergent methods of attempted seduction get far more attention than does the small matter of the traitor who’s selling information about the partisan rebels to the Axis brass, threatening hundreds of innocent lives. Meanwhile, big dumb Train, in lieu of asking George to please tell him again about the rabbits, has adopted a wounded Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) who refers to his protector as—I kid you not—his “chocolate giant.” Copious gooey bonding ensues.
Still, all the rampant clichés and maudlin sentiment might have been semi-tolerable were they not regularly interrupted by Lee’s tendentious public-service announcements and constantly smothered by Terence Blanchard’s oppressive orchestral score. Unwilling simply to let his forgotten heroes impress us with their courage and dedication, Lee uses them as mouthpieces for racial injustice, constantly clonking us over the head with reminders that the country these men are defending doesn’t give a damn about them. This Spike has come to hector, not to entertain, enthrall or edify. Only masochists need apply.