In Spike Lee's long and eclectic career, "Miracle at St. Anna" is easily his most technically ambitious film.
After acclaimed character dramas ("Malcolm X," "Do the Right Thing"), some ill-fated comedies ("Bamboozled," "She Hate Me") and even a documentary or two ("4 Little Girls"), Lee takes on a big, old-fashioned war picture. It's hard not to appreciate the fact that, after a quarter-century of making movies, he's chosen this time to leap so boldly away from his comfort zone.
But he might not have been ready for the enormity of such a project. "Miracle at St. Anna" is wildly unfocused in terms of tone and, at two hours and 40 minutes, it is unjustifiably overlong. Lee didn't write the script — that's the work of James McBride, who based the screenplay on his novel of the same name — but he didn't rein in his writer, either, perhaps because he feels so strongly about the subject matter.
"Miracle" tells of the men of the 92nd Infantry Division, black troops who served in Italy during World War II and were known as Buffalo Soldiers. Lee has long been critical of films about the war such as Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" for depicting only the white U.S. soldiers who fought. This is his response — voluminous and full of unmistakable anger.
That's not the only emotion that emerges in loud bursts. In following four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller), Lee jumps from visceral battle scenes to intimate drama to lighthearted comedy.
Regardless of the situation, though, he smothers everything, as usual, in the distractingly horn-heavy score of his longtime collaborator, composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Since this is one of his preferred tactics, Lee obviously isn't interested in hearing that he undermines himself with such bombast at every turn.
His war violence (shot vividly by Matthew Libatique, also the cinematographer on Lee's thrilling bank caper "Inside Man") is bloody and gritty. He holds nothing back. But there's clearly enough innate intensity there that he doesn't need to amp it up through music.
Similarly, the horns come in during quieter moments of dialogue between the men — needless audio cues when silence would have done just fine. After all, his is a worthwhile story to tell, one that deserves our attention. The meat of his message, though, tends to get drowned out in the din.
Beginning in 1983 New York, but mostly told in flashback, "Miracle at St. Anna" follows the earnest leader Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Luke), smooth-talking Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Ealy), Puerto Rican translator Cpl. Hector Negron (Alonso) and the sweet, lumbering Private First Class Sam Train (Miller). They're sent to cross the Serchio River and not expected to make it — they're meant to get blown up to ferret out the enemy. But once they do survive, they take in an injured boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and hide out in a Tuscan village, where the locals are initially wary of these heavily armed Americans but slowly warm to them.
Somewhere along the way, Train picked up a piece of a demolished bridge: a woman's head made of stone, which he totes everywhere because he swears it's good luck. We've glimpsed the head at the start of the film, hidden in a bag at the bottom of someone's closet, and part of the point of "Miracle" is uncovering the mystery of its meaning.
The other mystery, though, comes as the young moppet Angelo, who seems to have a saintly quality about him. With his wide eyes and innocent disposition, he forges an unlikely bond with Train, whom he refers to as "the chocolate giant," even though he speaks no English and the big guy speaks no Italian. Their relationship, in theory, could have been painfully maudlin ("I ain't never been this close to a white person before," Train admits to his buddies); turns out, it's a much needed source of warmth, and one of the few elements Lee calibrates just right.
He does coax some strong performances from his large cast, namely Luke as the stoic voice of reason, the earthy Valentina Cervi as a villager who befriends the soldiers and Pierfrancesco Favino as an Italian partisan leader known as The Butterfly.
After finding some subtleties through those characters, though, moments like the film's climax — the horrific event that took place at St. Anna and explains everything — veer to the opposite extreme. And the absolute ending, when it finally comes, bangs you over the head in a completely different way that is no less strenuous.
"Miracle at St. Anna," a Touchstone Pictures release, is rated R for strong war violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 160 minutes. Two stars out of four