Typically with Spike Lee, you don't have to wonder what's on his mind. Earlier this year, he accused Clint Eastwood of whitewashing WWII in "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," his double-sided pair of films from 2005. A lot of attention was paid to Lee's charges (where were the black soldiers?). More was paid to Eastwood's response. To paraphrase: Shut up. Then it was Lee's turn: "The man is not my father and we're not on a plantation."
Now "Miracle at St. Anna," Lee's first film about WWII and the African-American men who fought in it, will have to stand, whether or not he intends it to, as a rebuke not simply of Eastwood and Eastwood's prerogative on the war but to every movie anyone has ever made that's failed to recognize the contributions of black soldiers. I hope he rebukes again with a stronger movie.
"Miracle at St. Anna" is a Hollywood war picture that, at some variously inopportune moments, is also a bunch of other things - a police procedural, a docudrama, a courtroom drama, a nighttime soap (in broad, fraught daylight), and a small-Italian-village fable.
It's "Of Mice and Men," "Saving Private Ryan," a Roberto Benigni-less Benigni movie, and occasionally Spike Lee.
Lee seems happiest when his filmmaking can go in a dozen different directions that don't all have to meet up, although in his best movies - "Do the Right Thing," say - or in his most underrated - "Summer of Sam" - they do. This time, his film's many tones, storylines, characters, locations, and flashbacks dilute the essential momentous nature of the occasion.
As an act of storytelling, "Miracle at St. Anna" is generous to a fault. James McBride wrote the script from his novel - and he appears to have left no page unturned. Yet for an endeavor of such wide range, it feels defensively shortsighted. You know what Lee is thinking from the opening scene because he tells you. The camera rolls down a hallway in a Harlem apartment building in 1983 and up to the door, where on the other side an old man watches John Wayne on TV in "The Longest Day," that star-clogged D-Day epic from 1962. The man speaks to his television in aggravation: "We fought for this country, too."
The old man is a Puerto Rican named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso, in rubbery makeup). He works for the Postal Service, and when a face from the past walks up to his window, he blasts it with a Luger. After some rat-a-tat back-and-forth between a journalist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a detective (John Turturro), then the discovery of a Florentine statue in Hector's house (it's of a woman's head), the movie rewinds 39 years to 1944 Italy, where scores of black soldiers, members of the US Army's segregated 92d Infantry (the Buffalo Soldiers Division) tread across a brook. The Germans are in pursuit, and their assault as well as a series of American missteps (the infantry's young white captain is a hotheaded redneck) leaves a lot of the Americans dead.
But Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), and Hector are stranded in a beleaguered Italian villa. Its men are resistance fighters, off battling the Nazis, so at least two of the Americans are free to ogle the lusty English-speaking Italian lady, played by Valentina Cervi. (This being a Lee production, the women are a kind of bodacious jewelry.)
Sam, meanwhile, is a tall, lumpy simpleton. He think he's invisible and believes that the statue has value. He's rescued it, as well as an adorable Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi), from being crushed to death. The child, in turn, has mistaken Sam for a mythical creature: He's "Cioccolato Gigante." I'm not sure what to make of a war movie whose most affecting relationship is between a big, foolish black man and a smart little white boy. Miller and Sciabordi are very good together, but so were Michael Clarke Duncan and that prison mouse in "The Green Mile."
Lee moves on to a grisly massacre, a climactic shootout, and his hokiest finale yet. But the fever that normally ignites his filmmaking and draws us (well, some of us) to it never catches. He was so passionate about making "Miracle at St. Anna," but why does it feel so impersonal?
There's a beautifully eerie sequence in which a lady Nazi urges, over a loudspeaker, the soldiers to surrender because they'll be treated better by Germany than they ever would be in America: "We are a warm people," the voice intones. "We have biscuits . . . just like your momma makes." It's an amazing case of racial science-fiction.
Still, the most fascinating development in this movie should be the bond between its four soldiers, who according to one belligerent flashback, were pals before being shipped to Europe. The film doesn't explore their differences. When Luke or Alonso airs a grievance or expresses a hope, he's not really talking to the actor with him in the scene, he's talking to us.
This movie is too many things without one of those things ever breaking your heart or boiling your blood. "Miracle at St. Anna" is not work of outrage or joy. It's something distressingly new for the filmmaker: a work of obligation. It feels like a movie Lee made in order to say he did it.