War epics have always been a popular film genre. You know how the story goes: a group of soldiers get trapped behind enemy lines, and have to fight their way back to base while accomplishing their mission at the same time. Pretty much all of the top directors have attempted this kind of movie, except for one. It took 25 years before the always bold Spike Lee tried his hand at making a war picture in Miracle at St. Anna. But can Lee’s war film compete with the top war films ever made like Saving Private Ryan?
The film begins in the 1983, when an elderly postal worker Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) shoots an older Italian man, standing in his line waiting to buy stamps, in broad daylight with a German Ruger pistol. Whild conducting a search in Negron’s apartment, police find the severed head of a priceless Italian statue missing since the 1940s. When a cub reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seeks Hector’s story, it’s recalled in flashback. Hector was one of many all-black 92nd Division, Buffalo Soldiers sent to invade Italy during World War II in 1944. After one German ambush, a friendly-fire incident,and blatant racism from superior white officers, only sensible Corporal Hector, righteous 2nd Staff Sergeant leader Stamps (Derek Luke), swaggering Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), and sweet, simpleminded Private 1st Class Train (Omar Benson Miller) are the only ones left standing. The troops’ retreat to a small Italian village positions them for a standoff against Nazis and duplicitous Italian partisan fighters, as well as their own ideological differences.
The subject of this film is definitely unique. In most every other war film ever made, you hardly see any focus on African-Americans. But African-Americans were side-by-side with Caucasians as they battled Nazi Germany in the 1940s. As Spike Lee infamously complained about, you won’t find the existence of African-Americans in Clint Eastwood’s two World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Unfortunately Spike Lee seems to be too concerned with making a point than anything else. There are lots of things going on in this film. Spike’s main examination of racism in the American army during this time is effective enough. But then he throws in all of these side stories that detracts from what the main focus should have been. Add to the fact that this film is really 45 minutes too long, and you have a film that tries to be a lot of little mediocre things instead of being one great thing.
Thankfully, the characters and acting in Miracle at St. Anna help save this film somewhat. Spike Lee is able to show all kinds of characters besides the usual stereotypes. For the most part, he shows the good and bad sides of all races and cultures during this film. Derek Luke as always is a capable lead with Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller rounding out the core group of soldiers. Supporting characters are also particularly strong. But this film drags on far too long to ignore all of the cliches and manufactured drama that seem to occur in almost all war epics. The middle part of this film really drags as it seems like they are just adding filler to length this film to make it appear to be more important than it really is.
Miracle at St. Anna is ultimately a combination of war epic; examination of racism with the American army during this time; psychological study of future civilian life for soldiers; religious film; cross-cultural friendship film; and even a supernatural film. If he had stuck with just telling the story of this group of soldiers and focused more on the subject or race, Miracle in St. Anna likely would have been better. But as it is, there are too many side stories that detract from the message. The idea behind this film was a great one for Spike Lee to explore. All of the trademark Spike Lee elements are here as well, and Miracle at St. Anna benefits from an excellent cast. In the end, a lack of focus and Lee’s insistence of proving a point turns a potentially great film into a sloppy one. Miracle at St. Anna is still watchable, but is nowhere near the greatest Spike Lee film nor the best war epic ever made.
The video is presented at 1080p in the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen color ratio, which is enhanced for 16:9 TV. The colors are mostly deep and rich. There is some noticeable grain, but no real problems. Nothing special, but solid enough video quality for this film.
The audio included is available in either English 5.1 DTS-HD Surround sound, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound, or French Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. There are subtitles available in English, Spanish, and French as well. The dialogue and music come out loud and clear with the sound effects never really overpowering the dialogue. There are no major problems here either.
“Deeds Not Words” Featurette –
This runs 20 minutes and it’s a roundtable discussion of the film with Spike Lee (director), James McBride (writer), and the veterans of the real-life 92nd Buffalo Soliders division. This is a very enlighting featurette and definitely worth watching.
“The Buffalo Soldier Experience” Featurette –
This runs 20 minutes and it’s more first-hand accounts of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and their generally positive relations with Italian villagers in 1944. Another interesting featurette that gives you more background on the main story of this film.
Deleted Scenes –
There are 9 scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film and they total 20 minutes. All of these were cut for good reason. They don’t add much to the film, and honestly some more of the film should have been cut.
The subject of Miracle at St. Anna is fascinating enough, and if you can get through the middle part it is worth a rental. Spike Lee fans will probably want to buy this only if they want to collect all of his films on DVD. If you like war epics, this is also a good enough rental. But a purchase for anyone else is not recommend.
As for the difference between the Blu-ray edition and the standard edition DVD of this film, well if you want any extras you have to get the Blu-ray. No extras on the standard DVD, which might be a future trend. The video and audio quality is also better in this Blu-ray edition. The extras on the Blu-ray DVD aren’t that special, so if you have to chose one version of this film to get, go with the standard DVD.
Touchstone Pictures / Walt Disney Home Entertainment presents Miracle at St. Anna. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by James McBride. Starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Valentina Cervi, and Matteo Sciabordi. Running time: 160 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: February 10, 2009. Available at Amazon.com