‘Miracle at St. Anna’ moving war drama

David Hohwald

When it comes to Spike Lee, the last thing one expects is something average.

At the very least, Lee is known for pressing the boundaries of the genres he works within or offering a unique glimpse.

Much has been made of “Miracle at St. Anna” and its depiction of a Buffalo Soldier regiment serving in Italy in World War II, making it possibly the first true black WWII film.

At times, the movie reaches the potential of that weighty burden, and it truly shines, but the majority of the lengthy film is a mundane, average war film that rehashes old territory.

“Miracle at St. Anna” asks a lot of its actors, as traditional war films do.

At times this is fine because Lee manages to get terrific performances from some of the cast, specifically Laz Alonso in the lead role; Omar Benson Miller as the giant, if simple, Sam Train; and newcomer Matteo Sciabordi in an incredible rendition of the young boy Angelo.

The well runs dry after that, though, and most of the rest of the cast degenerates into bland, inconsistent delivery.

At times they buck this trend, but it is as bad as often as it is good.

Valentina Cervi occasionally shows the promise of a deeper character, but then this gets offset by D.B. Sweeney doing everything short of twisting a curlicue mustache to show his villainy as the platoon’s colonel.

The cast is deep in talent, but this never gets truly realized aside from the rarely excellent performances and a few glimpses of talent in a sea of mediocrity.

This imbalance is also seen throughout the film’s script, which is an adaptation James McBride did of his own novel.

When the script works, it fires on all cylinders, bringing action, tension, dread, reverence, magical realism and even humor.

Sadly, these moments of triumph are blurred by a first-time screenwriter’s obvious mishandlings.

While “Miracle at St. Anna” thrives on subtlety, McBride pushes points home, even in the very first scene, when doing so is unnecessary.

This lack of trust in the audience gets old long before the film’s lengthy 2 hours and 40 minutes are up.

“Miracle at St. Anna” runs the gamut in terms of quality, which makes it such a tough nut to crack.

Lee’s talent is apparent in a lot of scenes, but the direction of this film is far from flawless.

This is evident in the run-time itself.

The 160-minute movie tries to fit in a lot of conventions from previous war movies, including certain set pieces, traditional scenes and a joke every once in a while, along with a few flashbacks.

Tragedy sets in at the end when one realizes that the movie feels rushed even though it had more than enough time to get the job done.

Lee’s hot and cold streaks are not reserved simply for pacing, though. His camera work and scoring skills go all over the place.

Lee’s low, angled shots move languidly and reveal so much that watching them is a joy, but there are as many scenes in the film that get downright nauseating when he decides to constantly spin the camera around a subject.

The same is true of a score that is inconsistent. Lee chose to use a punishing score reminiscent of classic war epics, but it just never quits, even when it is not appropriate.

There is a lot to recommend about “Miracle at St. Anna.” It is at times poignant, powerful and has a few truly awe-inspiring moments.

The cast is generally average but features a couple terrific performances.

The scope of a WWII film specifically about black soldiers is a laudable goal.

Unfortunately, “Miracle at St. Anna” never manages to achieve its potential due to a lack of decisive filmmaking.

The result is a movie caught between tradition and innovation, never quite achieving either.