Never one to soft-pedal his ambitions, Spike Lee opens his grandiosely garish World War II epic Miracle at St. Anna with an old black man watching John Wayne in The Longest Day and muttering, “We fought for this country, too.” It’s a naked declaration—a big fat cinematic placard—of Lee’s intention to reclaim not only American history but American movies and their whitewashing myths. And that’s cool. As the most prominent African-American director of all time, Lee feels entitled, perhaps even obligated, to challenge the malign neglect of the past. He was right to mouth off about Clint Eastwood’s leaving black soldiers out of Iwo Jima (although his case was blunted by having once mouthed off about Eastwood’s audacity in making a Charlie Parker biopic—Lee wants to be the keeper of his brothers’ stories). And he was canny to recognize in James McBride’s novel about the all-black 92nd Infantry Division an ideal vehicle for his Flags of Our Fathers—his The Longest Day. Lee’s canvas is impressively vast. The shock is in how coarsely he fills it in.
In the jumpy prologue, set in 1983, the old John Wayne contrarian, a post-office teller, shoots an Italian at his window with a German Luger he keeps conveniently at his desk, and police searching his Harlem apartment find a long-lost marble head from a Florence bridge that was blown up by the Nazis. The film is a flashback in which we learn why the old man killed the Italian, and why he bristled at Wayne’s laconic avowal to hold a small Italian village, and who the hell is the middle-aged Italian guy who spilled his coffee in slow motion when he read about the murder. Along the way, there are hideous atrocities and holy resurrections, in addition to the heart-tugging story of a gentle-giant black soldier who adopts a traumatized Italian orphan. The movie skips from one formula to another, with clunky debates a constant: cynical blacks versus idealistic blacks; guilty Nazis versus bad Nazis; Italian partisans versus Italian Fascists.
Lee screws up his best ideas by trying to blow us away. (He does—but any blowhard can.) In the first battle sequence, the “buffalo soldiers” slosh through a Tuscan river while a Nazi truck blasts the voice of Axis Sally, the German counterpart of Tokyo Rose, to entice them to surrender. The promise of shelter and food (fried chicken, candied yams, etc.) is an obvious lie, but almost everything else hits home: They’re fighting for a country that once enslaved them and now keeps them segregated and small, that uses them for cannon fodder. But Lee can’t let the words hang in the air. He cuts to Axis Sally in her plush red lair, a lipsticked white temptress. Then the cartoon-racist southern colonel who’s miles from the scene refuses to believe these “uppity” Negroes have made it across the river and orders their location shelled. Lee lingers on the carnage—the limbless, writhing men, cut down by both Germans and Americans. Here, and in a scene in which the Nazis machine-gun an entire village, he thinks that showing the stark reality of war means shoving the horrors in our face.
When the carnage is over only four men are left: the stalwart Stamps (Derek Luke), the sardonic Bishop (Michael Ealy), the awkward, dark-skinned Hispanic translator, Hector (Laz Alonso), and the big simpleton, Train (Omar Benson Miller). It’s Train who clutches the injured Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and carts him to a nearby village—even after Bishop says to leave him be, that all white people are trained to hate blacks. Miller overplays the lovable-galoot act (“I ain’t never been this close to a white person”), but he’s hardly alone. The dialogue (by McBride) is subtext-free, and the actors go broad when they can’t go deep. It’s hard to tune in to their rhythms anyway: Terence Blanchard’s nonstop symphonic stirrings color every exchange. On its own terms, the score is gorgeous; Blanchard transforms martial themes into sighing lamentations. But the music elegizes the characters before they can speak. Their doom is in every bar.
When the soldiers stumble into a Tuscan village, Miracle at St. Anna injects a bunch of exuberant Italians, among them a stunning number (Valentina Cervi) who becomes the object of both Stamps’s quiet longing and Bishop’s salacious come-ons. There is one evocative moment, in which the men realize they feel more free, more at home, than they do in the States. But when Lee isn’t doing cinematic somersaults or mining for injustice, he doesn’t seem to know where to put the camera. The logistics of the plot make no sense, and he has nothing to sell but the theme of our common humanity—in which, on the evidence, I don’t think he believes. His heart is really in defacing American iconography, as when the black soldiers recall a Norman Rockwell-style diner back home and the owner’s refusing to serve them—even though a table was occupied by German prisoners. When the flashback ends, the men stare balefully into the camera. The seconds crawl: What are they glaring at? Us? It turns out to be some racist posters, but I can’t help thinking we’ve also been accused.
Miracle at St. Anna will doubtless be extolled by people who mistake Lee’s righteous clobbering for moral seriousness. But compare any scene to Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes (stupidly retitled Days of Glory in the U.S.), in which Algerians—French citizens—fight for a country that gives them no rights: The storytelling is measured, the encounters glancing but rich, the violence more devastating for its restraint. Compare the Taviani brothers’ sublime Night of the Shooting Stars, in which comedy bleeds into tragedy and the characters have so much stature you can’t believe they’re killing one another so absurdly. Lee’s climax is part punishing bloodbath, part florid religious uplift, and the coda is so maladroit it’s hard to believe anyone on-set could keep a straight face. (Does Lee believe this crap, or is he trying to outdo the end of Saving Private Ryan—which barely worked?)
When Lee made his studio caper picture, Inside Man, a lot of us praised his light touch, even his slickness, and I fear that might have been interpreted as a call for him to be more ingratiating to the mainstream audience and his Hollywood masters. It wasn’t. It was that he finally seemed to have enough confidence in his storytelling to keep his agenda below the surface. In movies like Miracle at St. Anna, the humanity can’t be force-fed or captured on a placard. It’s too evanescent. It’s only a miracle if it rises up out of the screen, as if by force of nature. It’s only a miracle if it looks easy.
Briefly: Choke, from Chuck Palahniuk’s typically overheated novel about a sex addict who blames his crazy mother, is the first movie chockablock with nude women I’ve ever fought to stay awake at. Sam Rockwell strips himself down to pure appetite and has a buoyant spirit. But the film sure doesn’t. It’s bizarrely flat—it has no affect. It’s like Palahniuk translated into Robotese … The New York Film Festival opens with Laurent Cantet’s The Class, in which a Paris high-school teacher, François (played by François Bégaudeau, who wrote a memoir about teaching), labors over the course of a year to engage his mostly poor, multiracial students. The class scenes were largely improvised and seem to unfold in real time—they go on and on. Yet they’re each a cliffhanger. Great teaching is presented as an exhausting series of negotiations, the meaning in the minutiae—sometimes in the smallest of exchanges. For most of the film, François is an inspiring figure; then something, for a variety of reasons, snaps, and he becomes piggish and irrational. He does bad. Yet we never entirely abandon him. The process has been so fraught. The Class is a true movie miracle: fragile yet indelible. (It opens commercially in December.)
Miracle at St. Anna
Directed by Spike Lee.
Touchstone Pictures. R.
Directed by Clark Gregg
Fox Searchlight. R.
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Sony Pictures Classics. Not Rated.