October 14, 2008

REVIEW: Miracle at St. Anna (B)

(This is a mess. It's lazy writing and a poor review, but I saw this several weeks ago and I've forced myself to put my thoughts down just to make sure I thought what I actually thought about it. So I apologize in advance; if you decide to wade through this just don't expect the typical brilliance and luminous, poetic writing for which I've won so many movie blogging awards.)

In reviewing Chop Shop several months ago, I somewhat brazenly called Ramin Bahrani “
one of the most daring filmmakers currently working”, noting his stripped-down cinematography and defiant dismissal of conventional elements of film - such as story and structure. While Spike Lee adds a bit more artistic flavor to his work than Bahrani, he also is a film pioneer, a man with an idea and a camera who violently throws his vision in your face and simply smirks when, weeks or months later and after you take down your defenses, you realize that what you experienced was actually the work of cunning genius.

When it comes to Spike Lee, Hollywood and most of the American public are going to realize this far too late, long after his best years are behind him. That Lee hasn't won an Oscar in 20 years of filmmaking isn't as shocking as it is shameful. I'm not one for handing out awards for the wrong reasons, but the simple fact is that few people have influenced American cinema so much while receiving so little credit in the process. For that matter, few directors have worked at such a high level without making a film that is clearly Oscar bait.

Miracle at St. Anna is Lee's Oscar bait. No doubt frustrated by the shrugged shoulders (mine included) surrounding his last few features, including She Hate Me and Inside Man, it appears Lee felt it was time to take a much bigger swing with a much bigger bat. His first war epic (and one of the few features he's made outside of New York City) is truly a swing for the fences, a last-second heave, a Hail Mary. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, Miracle at St. Anna is plenty long, but if you ask Lee I'm sure it's not long enough. Touching on everything from racism in the U.S. Military to Catholic mysticism to interracial romance to the cultural consequences of fascism, it's an extremely ambitious film that ultimately ends up getting ahead of itself, like an idealistic high school senior who proudly declares they're going to tackle all of the wrongs in the world at the same time (and I say that having been that idealistic high school senior a decade ago).

In this way, then, Miracle at St. Anna's success depends on your expectations. You could judge it more easily if it were a one-dimensional film, but it's a project so big that it almost achieves an immunity to specific criticisms; you're throwing darts in the same way Lee is, and they ironically don't stick any better than his do: We've seen this before! Um, yeah - so? Shouldn't that be said about every war movie then? Lee takes too many artistic freedoms in telling the story! This isn't a documentary, and it's based on a novel anyway. It's too long and plodding! Compared to what, Letters from Iwo Jima? All of the white characters are racist! It's a Spike Lee movie, and besides, that doesn't mean that none of them would have been. It's an engaging story that could have made for a better movie but Lee jumps around too much and obnoxiously bashes us over the head with the themes and seems to be unsure of exactly what imperative point he's trying to make! Hey, I was going to say that!

It's true. There's so much going on here that you leave overwhelmed and without a clear grasp of what Lee's vision was for this movie. It's certainly worth mentioning that this is not his original story - the screenplay was adapted by James McBride from his own novel of the same name, so in one sense this film is almost as much his as it is Lee's. I haven't read the book, but I feel like McBride and Lee could have together made this very important story more accessible for the viewing public (who have done their best to ensure an incredibly brief theatrical run by staying away from it in droves).

But there I'm stuck again; I want to criticize it for "doing too much" but at the same time praise it for rising above the conventions of the war movie genre. Starting out as a murder mystery in early 1980's New York City, Miracle at St. Anna moves full steam ahead into a major battle scene, switches gears into a tender family comedy, upshifts to a romantic drama, and comes full circle again several more times. We hear at least four languages and end up in the U.S. several times. Did I mention the whole movie is a flashback?

I say all this because at the end of the day, I liked Miracle at St. Anna because it presents a more engrossing story than so many other classic and recent war epics, Letters from Iwo Jima included. Like Flags of Our Fathers (which I prefer), Miracle at St. Anna isn't really about the war, it's about the soldiers and the culture that supports, or in this case weakens, their resolve in the war. If I wanted to watch stomach-churning battle scenes over and over, I could take my pick from any Mel Gibson movie or History Channel documentary. But I don't want to watch that, and I wish Spike Lee knew this because he nearly set a new standard for horrifically graphic violence in one scene (that I swore elicited at least one laugh in the audience, but then I suppose there's nothing as funny as a crying infant skewered by a bayonet as it lays on its dead mother's breast). What I want to watch is the soldiers' story, and I want it to relate to their lives at home. It's probably no surprise, then, that I've found Stop-Loss to be the best movie yet about the Iraq War.

Believable characters required good acting, however, and Miracle at St. Anna has it in spades. With this movie, Lee has given four promising, young African-American actors what should be a major résumé
builder. All of them are familiar faces, but only Derek Luke (Catch a Fire, Antwone Fisher) is a household name. Ironically, he's the weakest link in this particular cast, which is also led by Omar Benson Miller (Things We Lost in the Fire), Michael Ealy (Barbershop), and Laz Alonso (Stomp the Yard, Jarhead). I wouldn't blink if any of these guys received Oscar buzz, but I'm not necessarily going to expect it, either, especially not in a movie that has been so universally panned.

Not the faces that usually come to mind when you picture WW II veterans...

I know I was all over the place with my thoughts here, but like Lee I remain unapologetic, and I accept that I've done little here other than state my preference for one type of war movie over another (and if I've gotten out of summarizing the movie, so much the better!). If you want a comforting, "patriotic" war movie, you're not going to get it with Miracle at St. Anna. Lee throws convention out the window and turns McBride's novel into a bold, brash statement about this country's longstanding ignorance regarding African-Americans in the U.S. armed forces, among many other things. True to tradition, I predict this movie to eventually be looked back on with more praise than it initially received.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 43/50= 86% = B


  1. I'm glad you addressed all the negative criticism that St. Anna's been receiving. I've been meaning to check it out for weeks but with Dollar Theatres (seriously, movies for a dollar) out here in Utah, I've been waiting for things to transfer over from the $7.25 theatres.

  2. too felt St Anna got short shrifted in many reviews, and meant to write my thoughts on this film but I fear it is just not going to happen. While I didn't think St Anna was a great film (Lee has certainly done better) it is nonetheless just as bold as anything Lee has done. I found the lame criticisms against it surprising: the key moment in the beginning of the film is "unbelievable" (for God's sake, it's a parable!); the war scenes were "bad" (I guess they weren't like Saving Private Ryan if that's what they meant); situations and dialogue were incongruous to the time (I'm not buying that).

    Despite the outward appearances of his films, I don't think Spike Lee has changed his tact that much. Even with Inside Man, there is a lot more going on than your average action/thriller.

  3. At this rate I would be shocked if it made it to the Dollar Theatres, Scott, but it's definitely worth $1. Only the crankiest critics would disagree with that.

    I was a little surprised, too, Kathie. I avoided much of the buzz around it at first, only to find myself pretty much alone on the positive side when the dust settled (positive being relative here - it's not the movie of the year but I still recommend it). Ah, well - not the first time, won't be the last.

    Is this where I just come out and admit that I didn't really care for Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Letters From Iwo Jima, and others? Yup, just did. Award worthy epics on a grand scale, yes, but if I have my choice of war movies I might take something more clever like Bridge on the River Kwai or something more personal like Rescue Dawn.

    I probably owe Inside Man a second look. I remember loving it at first and gradually disliking it by the end, in large part because of Jodie Foster's character. You're right, though, I think it was a little richer than something like The Bank Job.

  4. You're far too modest and self critical, darling.

    You had a lot of problems with the film. But there was much that you liked about it.

    Yeah, it is getting a critical kick in the nether regions. BIG DEAL.

    Be strong, honey. You enjoy and find value in what you feel is worthwhile. That's it. That's all.

    I've found myself on the opposite side of the critical divide more than once since I started my site in March.


    As long as I can discuss my own personal POV and be true to myself (and express myself articulately and intelligently) then there's nothing else to say as far as I'm concerned.

    Incidentally, I didn't care for SPR or LFIJ either. FOOF was almost as messed up. But INFINITELY PREFERABLE to LFIJ.

    You told it like it was. Though I haven't seen ST. ANNA, I certainly trust your opinion.

    No need to get agitated.

    I think you did just fine...

  5. Dan: my biggest problem with this film is that it was unfocused, overlong and narratively disjointed. It wasn't enagaging and was torturous to sit through as well. I agree with what you say about the four leads, and there were some strong individual moments. Spike Lee has made two great films in his career, DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X. I can't say I am fond of much else to varying degrees.

    As always you made an excellent attempt to diffuse any unreasonable hostility, and your admirable penchant to locate some good in everything. Your review is not messy at all, it is quite good in fact! You sell yourself short, but that's your nature.

    I saw this piece up here two days ago, but I have resisted responding until now.

  6. Not to worry, Sam. Pretty busy couple of weeks for me so I'm only able to catch up on comments here and there. I've still got a ton of your posts (both of yours and everyone else's actually) waiting for me in my reader.

    I've always admired your brutally honest (and articulate and intelligent) reviews, M. You're right - why back down when it's your space?

    I kind of like FOOF after I saw it (especially Adam Beach), but it didn't really "impress me" until I saw LFIJ. Go figure.

    Sam, you're obviously in good company with your thoughts on St. Anna. Disjointed is a word that I can completely agree with, though I do have to admit that I really was engaged through most of it. Somehow, those four characters brought me through from start to finish.

  7. About your comments on Lee's not receiving an Oscar as shameful: Nobody likes having their noses rubbed in their shortcomings, and largely-white Hollywood is no different. Clint Eastwood didn't depict any black soldiers in his movie? Probably never crossed his mind.

  8. Agreed - but then on top of it Eastwood turns into a crabapple about it? It really is as though he knew he had messed up and just didn't want someone to notice, especially not somebody like Spike Lee.

    Miranda and I mentioned this over at her blog, but when did Eastwood become the monarch of Hollywood that everyone has to grovel in front of? All the guy has made recently is Oscar bait, and while it hasn't all been bad, it's not like it - or he - is above criticism.


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