“Miracle at St. Anna”
Touchstone
Quality 16 & Showcase
3.5 out of 5 Stars

It’s easy to brush off Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” upon first viewing.

Pitched as the first prestige piece about African-American soldiers and their involvement in World War II, “Anna” is fighting an uphill battle. And two-and-a-half-hour experimental war films tend to have a small audience.

Oh, and there was that whole Clint Eastwood slug-out that irked audiences and critics before they even saw “Anna.” For those who didn’t hear about it, director Lee got into a public war of words over the lack of African-American presence in Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.” This was viewed as a cheap ad tactic and unneeded bout for Lee.

The editing is indirect is and the film develops slowly. The dialogue is belabored, and the actors might seem tired from delivering their lines instead of the actual battles they endure. Little is cut, as the film takes a sort of epic approach to storytelling. “Anna” is easy to dismiss.

But, for what it is, “Miracle at St. Anna” is a fantastic journey. Often unwieldy and unpredictable, we take the trip with Lee and his soldiers, fascinated with what happens each step of the way. “Anna” might be the literal equal and more politically complicated brother of “Saving Private Ryan.”

Beginning in 1983, stamp seller Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, “This Christmas”) shoots a man in broad daylight with an old Nazi pistol. This leads to an investigation of Negron’s home which uncovers a rare statue head lying in his closet that’s been declared missing for several decades. The big question is, how’d it get there?

Negron, in custody, proceeds to tell the story of his involvement in WWII as he discloses what happened in the war, and why he has the rare head.

Due to their naive white superiors, and the sacrificial nature of the Buffalo Soldier companies in World War II, four men — including Negron — were marooned after a botched battle in the Italian countryside. On their run for safety, they find a small boy who may or may not have a ghost following him and a connection to the head the men found. Trapped in a village as commanders debate the value of a rescue mission, Nazi forces surround the place, forcing the men to hide.

The film explores greater ideas in relation to war and race. Should these four black soldiers feel privileged to serve their country when it still treats them like shit? Might defecting be the right choice considering the the Italian villagers treat these four men as equals? And can war ever be anything but a series of black and white circumstances? All this and a great deal more is explored in “Anna,” as the film is intended to do more than just show off blood and battle.

As always, Spike Lee infuses his signature stylistic decisions. Montages set to gorgeous jazz pieces — by Terence Blanchard — gives a classical feel to the proceedings. Narration is perfectly executed to explore the real feelings of each character. Like “The Thin Red Line,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” or even “Mister Roberts,” the fighting is arbitrary in relation to the bigger pictures.

“Miracle at St. Anna” is far from perfect. Yeah, it’s long, over-written and often over-made, but maybe that’s a good thing. “Anna” ‘s been accused of sloppy soliloquy, and in all fairness, it’s an unusual watch. But it’s ambitious work brimming with emotional intelligence and racial politics we hardly get to see in such genre pieces. And that’s definitely not a bad thing.

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