Like Douglas MacArthur's old soldiers, World War II movies will never die. Unlike those old soldiers, however, WWII movies won't ever fade away as long as audiences express anxiety about current global conflicts. From They Were Expendable to The Thin Red Line, the classic American war films elucidate moments of courage and bravery that remain moving and important even though the idea of fighting such a clear-cut good-versus-evil fight now seems impossible to imagine.
Within the last year, though, a more complex treatment of World War II has yielded remarkable results. With last year's Black Book, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven critiqued traditional notions of wartime heroism within the context of a survival story that also emphasized the roles of women during wartime. And Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 Army Of Shadows, which was re-released last year, looked into the high cost of doing the right thing for a left-wing cause. Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee's new attempt to tell a true war story, should have been a welcome addition to those remarkable works, since the conventions of the genre play to Lee's strengths at dramatizing larger-than-life figures grappling with thorny, unwieldy social and historical issues. So why is his new film such an interminable, unfocused, ridiculous mess?
For starters, Lee's plot and characterization scarcely qualify as archetypal, much less original. The film follows a quartet of black Army soldiers (a Cynic, an Uncle Tom, an Assman, and a Simpleton, of course) who rescue a young Italian boy and eventually hide out in an Italian village. This story is told with none of the visual daring Lee brought to previous fiction films such as 25th Hour and Inside Man. Speaking of visuals, the gruesome battle sequences owe everything to Steven Spielberg's flawed but potent Saving Private Ryan. But not even Spielberg would batter the audience with music the way Lee brandishes Terence Blanchard's overblown score while the bullets and bodies fly.
Miracle at St. Anna's most memorable, audacious scene is more befuddling than breathtaking. It occurs when one of the soldiers flashes back to a Louisiana diner where he and his fellow grunts were refused service by the redneck proprietor. They later return to the diner and force the man to serve them by baring their rifles and essentially holding up the place.
What the hell's going on in this scene? Why does Lee hold the image of the crestfallen soldiers and link it to the racial stereotypes displayed on Axis propaganda posters? Is he condemning the violent reprisals of this group, or is he praising them for wresting their dignity back from the wicked oppressor behind the counter? Such confusion is momentarily diverting, but its vagueness is nothing like the rich ambiguity of Lee's best work. And it's symptomatic of the film's incapacity to show or tell us anything new about combat, race, history, or spirituality. War films are hell. When will they end?
Miracle at St. Anna