"Why die for a nation that doesn't want you?"
That's the question a platoon of African American soldiers hears over a radio loudspeaker as it's approaching the Serchio River in the hills of Tuscany toward the end of World War II. Posing the question is the Tokyo Rose of the European Theater of Operations, Axis Sally. And you can tell by the looks on the soldiers' faces that she's getting through to them. Treated like second-class citizens back home, ethnic-minority soldiers must have asked themselves more than once what exactly they were fighting for. And there's surely a great war movie to be made on that subject. Alas, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna is not that movie. It's this other movie that strives for greatness in every scene, almost guaranteeing that greatness will not be achieved.
What we might call an intimate epic, Miracle at St. Anna rarely leaves the Italian village where four so-called Buffalo Soldiers - named for the black cowboys who enjoyed a measure of open-range latitude in the Old West - have holed up behind enemy lines. Split off from the rest of their platoon, which was mowed down by German machine guns while trying to cross that river, these guys don't look or sound like the G.I. Joes we've seen in all those World War II movies. And that, on its own, is enough to keep things interesting. But the movie, which is based on a novel by James McBride, wants to cover too much ground while staying in the same place. Instead of carving out a through-line, McBride (who wrote the script) piled on the subplots.
There's one about a gentle-giant soldier (Omar Benson Miller) who takes a shine to an Italian boy (Matteo Sciabordi) left orphaned by an SS massacre. There's one about a Martin/Malcolm pair of soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Ealy) who both set their sights on a local beauty (Valentina Cervi). There's one about a band of Italian partisans with a traitor in their midst. There's even an extended framing story about a postal clerk (Laz Alonso) who, many years after the war, pulls out a Luger and shoots a customer who's spoken with a thick Italian accent. How the clerk had gotten away with keeping a handgun at the ready all this time is a question you'd prefer not to ask, but there's the sense, as the movie lurches toward the three-hour mark, that not everything has been completely thought through.
Lee directs with his usual bravado, literally running circles around the characters, whether the moment calls for that kind of extreme punctuation or not. Likewise, Terence Blanchard's jazz-inflected score pours on the sentiment, whether the sentiment be horror or humor. Overall, Lee seems much more interested in memorializing these soldiers than in trying to understand them. Why did they fight? Were they drafted? Did they enlist? The movie doesn't really explore their motivations, and the outcome doesn't have that much to do with their racial identities. They could be replaced with white soldiers and everything would work out about the same. But at least they haven't been replaced this time. And that, in the context of all the war movies that have come before, is nothing short of a miracle.