Movie News & Reviews

Spike needed to trim 'Miracle at St. Anna'

I'd hate to imagine what would happen to the entertainment industry ifa well-meaning time traveler ever goes back and seduces Hitler's mombefore he's born, thereby preventing World War II.

We wouldn't have Paths of Glory or Saving Private Ryan.No Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-5 or The Naked and theDead. (Then again, we might not have Norman Mailer at all, so callthat a push.) First-person shooters would be drastically less awesome.Yes, if it weren't for the greatest tragedy in human history, it wouldbe a pretty boring present.

So if your life's a miserable hellpit of suffering and torment, buckup: some day, somebody might make a movie out of it, and then theywill get rich while your grave goes unvisited. And if you're very,very lucky, it might even be a good movie, unlike Miracle at St.Anna, an overlong, directionless WWII story that should make usquestion whether the wars we fight are really worth the price latergenerations will pay in shoddy art and entertainment.

In 1983, an old man shoots a customer down in cold blood. In 1944,that old man was a corporal in the Buffalo Soldiers, the U.S. Army'strial all-black combat force. During an assault on a fortified enemyposition, he and three others are separated from their group.

Cut off in the Italian mountains and surrounded by Germans, the fourhole up in a small village to find help for a hurt Italian boy theypicked up on the way. There, word comes in from their commander: brassbelieves there's a German counterattack on the way. They need aprisoner to confirm it. And the four Buffalo Soldiers are the onlyones in position to take one.

This might create the illusion Miracle at St. Anna has any kindof tension or cohesive plot. Instead, it's sluggish, meandering,overstuffed, and 160 minutes long. Slashing a good 40-60 minutes mightnot have made it good, but it would have fractionally lowered myimpulse to bludgeon myself into unconsciousness with the cell phone Iwas compulsively checking to see how much damn time was left. Answer:always too much.

Yet it's directed by Spike Lee, who can normally be counted on to atleast be entertaining. Hmm, let's see here, written by JamesMcBride -- and based on his own novel?

Uh oh. Even as a bad one, I know how writers think. To us, each wordwe write is more precious than a rocketship built from kings' bones.We would rather cut our editor's throats than a single line of text.If I were asked to condense a book of mine into a movie script, Iwould just take their money, then for six straight months pretend towork (just like I do every day) before returning to Big Shot HollywoodMan's office, flinging the untouched novel in his face, thenhightailing it for Brazil.

Is this inability to cut what happened to McBride? Hard to say. Itwould explain the movie's novelistic tendency to digress into subplotsand yutz around with side characters as the four soldiers spin theirwheels in that stupid village for what can only feel like World WarsII through XVII.

In the attempt to keep everything, the whole movie suffers. We don'tget much sense of who the Buffalo Soldiers are, either as individualsor in terms of their historical significance. It feels like there's animportant story here, but it's so swamped up with irrelevancies thekey notes aren't allowed to ring out.

Lee does put together some gnarly battle sequences. These and the fewother potent scenes, when they emerge, are a jarring contrast to thelong stretches that surround them: a noodling story, clumsy themes, anonsensical wrap-up. Too often, Miracle at St. Anna is no morethan that everyday non-event, a movie that's just boring.

Grade: C-