September 26, 2008

‘Miracle at St. Anna’ Could Use Some Divine Intervention

By Claudia Puig

Miracle at St. Anna aspires to be epic, but mostly it's just unfocused, sprawling and badly in need of editing.

Spike Lee's adaptation of James McBride's novel about four black soldiers during World War II is passionate but hampered by an inconsistent tone, dull and overlong stretches, cliched dialogue and a derivative story. At times it calls to mind Saving Private Ryan, other times Flags of our Fathers and Life Is Beautiful. But it's never as good as any of those films.

It tries hard to be inspiring, but it has jarring tonal shifts, stereotyped characters and a lack of narrative perspective. A key character nurses a 40-year grudge, but the circumstances in which it is avenged stretch credulity.

Most of the movie is spent in a wartime flashback: Members of the all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldier" Division are trapped behind enemy lines in the Tuscan countryside. We are meant to be touched when one of the soldiers, Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), takes serious risks to save an Italian child. Miller does a fine job in a role that falls victim to the hackneyed Hollywood "gentle giant" cliche. He forges a bond meant to seem unlikely (though we see it coming early on) with the sad little boy with quasi-mystical qualities. But what should have been moving feels like a contrived, formulaic concept rather than a real connection.

Laz Alonso plays Hector Negron, one of the four soldiers in the Italian saga. He survives the war, earns a Purple Heart and appears to have led a happy life once back in New York. But the movie opens with him at his post office job rather calmly but decidedly "going postal."

The entire film is structured to show us that his crime is not the isolated act of a man who has snapped but the result of a long-held and righteous grudge.

Even after two hours of back story, however, it still doesn't ring true. Has this man kept a gun stashed at his station for decades in hopes that he would someday come face to face with the nemesis he fought in the war? Or did he just sense when the moment would come and act accordingly?

What happens after Hector's crime is equally unbelievable, with a strikingly artificial ending.

No doubt there's a great story to be told among the individual sagas of the Buffalo Soldier unit, but this one isn't it. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>