Of all Spike Lee’s considerable gifts, it’s his ear for dialogue that’s best served him through a spotty ten years. Plots and polemics have grown tired (She Hate Me), but the cop-perp patter of Inside Man had a convincing bristle—pure directorial toughness—as did the borough-steeped profanities of Summer of Sam and 25th Hour. The strongest idea Lee’s had in a while was to simply go down to New Orleans and listen, for When the Levees Broke.
In this regard, Miracle at St. Anna is a huge letdown. You can easily see what Lee was going for: an honorable corrective to Hollywood’s longtime WWII sentimentalizing, expanding the frame to include underrepresented black servicemen, the buffalo soldiers.
But the conventional solutions arrived at by novelist and scripter James McBride (along with an uncredited Lee) are actually worse than those in John Wayne movies, neutralizing Lee’s talent for earthy anxieties. The movie’s Tuscan-trapped band of partisans and U.S. soldiers includes a gentle simp of a teddy bear, Pfc. Train (Miller); a precocious, leg-clinging Italian orphan (Sciabordi) who calls Train his “chocolate giant”; and a hotcha local babe with a shirt-buttoning problem (Valentina Cervi).
If stinging neorealist emotions were his goal, Lee would have been wise to reduce his scope, at least by chopping the useless 1980s bookends and generic racist-diner flashback. Moreover, this director remains extremely uncomfortable in period, mixing modern slang with chest-thumping earnestness (“Makes me ashamed to be more free in a foreign country”). Meanwhile, histrionic composer Terence Blanchard seems to think he’s scoring the new James Bond movie. Lee’s war lacks a battle plan, not good intentions.