I think it's fair to say 2008 wasn’t a very good year professionally for director Spike Lee. By now, most people have heard or read about his tirade last summer when he publicly accused Clint Eastwood of being a racist for not including any African-Americans in his war epic ‘Flags of our Fathers’ (Prompting Eastwood to fire back and put the younger filmmaker and his swelled head in his place). Then, if that wasn't embarrassing enough, a few months later Lee’s ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ hit theaters and generally failed to live up to critics’ expectations. It’s the kind of film that had the potential for greatness, even Oscar-worthiness, but too many factors were executed so poorly that only a miracle could have saved it.
Written by James McBride (and adapted from his own novel), the film begins at Christmas time in 1983 just before an elderly African-American post office clerk on the verge of retirement is arrested after seemingly going postal and shooting down a customer with an old Nazi Luger. Following the arrest, the investigation leads to the man’s apartment, where the detectives not only discover the alleged suspect is a World War II hero awarded a few commendations including a Purple Heart, but also come across a statue head tucked away in the man’s closet that turns out to be a long lost artifact from Italy worth millions.
The rest of the film plays out in flashback, traveling back nearly forty years to 1944, where the American army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” are on patrol in Tuscany. As the company moves their battalion across a river, an attack by the Germans kills many of the U.S. soldiers. Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) and Private First-Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller)- who happens to be lugging around the statue head as a souvenir and token of luck — are among the few who make it to the other side. But when Bishop radios HQ to inform them of the situation, the stubborn and discriminatory actions of his white commanding officer only cause more American bloodshed. Bishop and Train can only press forward behind enemy lines, and after Train comes to the aid of a young traumatized Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi), they eventually meet up with 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) of their unit and they all head to a small isolated village. What they find is a real shocker, as the villagers greet them with the love, honor, and respect they weren’t even given from their own country.
There’s no question African-American soldiers suffered through hardships and discrimination, and since the 92nd Division was deemed a “failure” when it really wasn’t, it’s definitely a subject that truly needs more awareness so I’ll give Lee and McBride credit there. But the fact is, ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ is a mess. You may remember that in my review for ‘Babylon A.D.’ I said the film had some of the worst editing I had seen yet, as it was trimmed down so much it was hard to follow. Well, Lee’s film is the total opposite, as if the man didn’t bother with an editor at all. The film is jam-packed with long, panning scenes that go on nearly forever. Did we really need about a half minute zoom in on a newspaper? How about all of the sequences of soldiers trudging through the river, trudging again, and trudging some more? These are just a couple of examples. All this did was make the film overly and unnecessarily long, and the two hour and forty minute runtime feel like an eternity.
It was also impossible to feel any kind of emotion when the film is plagued with overacting and clichéd caricatures. The film jumps back and forth between a serious drama to overdone melodrama, with a smattering of almost slapstick-style humor thrown in for good measure. The whole attack at the river had a ton of death and destruction as soldiers were shot down and arms and legs were blown off, but it was done in such a way that it looked hokey. The little Italian boy rambled on and on about frivolous things (at one point I even expected him to cry out, "Mama mia! I've fallen… and I can't get up" just to milk his fifteen minutes of fame. Don’t even get me started on how some of the soldiers were portrayed. I’m sorry, but it was too much to swallow and take seriously.
I suppose some blame should fall on McBride for his writing. For a story that supposedly takes place in 1944, the type of slang being used in conversations was too modern to fit in with the rest of the picture, plus parts of the screenplay are disjointed and awkward. I think the biggest mistake, however, was crafting a work of fiction. The Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre is a real historical event, as is the relationship between the Italians and the African-American soldiers, but the rest of the movie is all from McBride’s imagination. I wouldn’t exactly call this an insult to the real-life Buffalo Soldier heroes, however I think it does in a sense undermine the message that a film like this should try to convey.
As usual, the folks at Disney present another solid 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC (2.35:1 aspect ratio) transfer for the Blu-ray of ’Miracle at St. Anna,’ highlighting two different pictures for the two timelines.
The more recent sections of the film take place in the early eighties and provide a nice sharp picture with realistic skin tones and fantastic facial detailing. I could clearly see the make-up used to make Alonso appear much older than he really is and could count every individual hair on his head. The 1944 sequences on the other hand, also have fine detail in close-ups of uniform patches and the textures of the ancient building stonework in the Italian countryside, but the colors here are more subdued and there's more grain in these flashback scenes (which is most noticeable when the American soldiers are crossing the river). I also thought the WWII imagery was softer than the more modern picture. Black levels are rock solid in both cases, and I didn't detect any blemishes, macroblocking, banding, or other issues in the print. My only real complaint is that there are periodic white subtitles and they are overlaid on a very light background in a few instances, making them difficult to read at times.
As a side note, the U.S. version of ‘Miracle at St Anna’ on Blu-ray apparently isn’t region-locked so it should play in all PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
Even better is the exceptional lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) track included on the disc.
Dialogue comes through crisp on the center channel, and although I wasn’t all that crazy about the score by Terence Blanchard, it does fill the room with a respectable ambience. Of course, being a war film, the bass works overtime with a multitude of grenades, mortars, and other explosions, while the surrounds assist in bringing the battles to life. As one would expect, gunfire comes from all sides, and even the ringing of church bells was impressive. The robust soundtrack might be a tad too loud for some, but for me it was the best part of the Blu-ray.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks in French and Spanish, as well as optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
While Buena Vista Home Entertainment doesn’t include a lot of bonuses here, the Blu-ray does have a few items of interest:
‘Miracle at St. Anna’ is a far cry from one of Spike Lee’s masterpieces. I’m guessing he was aiming for an Academy Award, since the film does have fantastic scenery and an important subject matter, but unfortunately, none of the other components came together well at all. While the Blu-ray does have excellent video and audio as well as a pair of interesting featurettes, I still can’t recommend the film past a rental.