The recent war film from Spike Lee, Miracle at St. Anna was pocked with controversy before it was even released. Questioned for its historical accuracy, the film had more than a few protestors but that didn’t stop the film eventually being released in 2008. The controversy would soon prove to be null, as the critical reception for the film was poor and the box office intake would be less than stellar. With less than $10 million made worldwide, the $45 million budgeted picture would ultimately be a failure at the box office. Despite opening in September, the film wouldn’t see a home video release until nearly six months after its theatrical release.
Miracle at St. Anna comes from the true story of four African American soldiers stationed in German occupied Italy during World War II. Separated from their unit and trapped behind Nazi lines, ranking officer Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), hot-headed Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), radioman Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) and gentle giant Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) survive a shocking massacre, rescuing a young Italian boy in the process. The five make their way to the nearest village, where they join forces with the local opposition, risking their lives and gathering intelligence for a nation that considers them second-class citizens.
It was probably a mistake to watch this film so soon after watching the absolutely brilliant Band of Brothers on Blu-ray, as that was perhaps the definitive World War II story for me. Saving Private Ryan was another excellent film but one I hadn’t seen for awhile, so any comparisons I was going to make was going to be between St. Anna and Brothers. And that is a pretty big mistake, as the story for Miracle at St. Anna was overburdened with superfluous storytelling and, to me, just really didn’t feel like most other World War II movies.
The issues I had with the film stemmed not from any realistic depictions of war but more entirely in how the story itself was told. I’ve lamented before about the influx of stories about black oppression and how absolutely deluged we seem to have been with them in recent years and quite honestly Miracle at St. Anna uses the same story but put into a different scenario. While this isn’t necessarily something I’ve seen before in context of World War II, it is something I’ve seen before in a dozen other places and as such I felt immediately bored by the plot. Not only that but it seemed to mock itself with actual jokes that elicited laughter from the viewer after a particularly shocking or grizzly war scene. Why? I don’t know. All I know is when I watch World War II stories that tug at the heart strings, I don’t think I want to be actually laughing at a joke a few seconds later.
On top of that, the pacing of the film was thrown off from the introduction. While it’s always a neat story point when you start at the end, rewind, and then finish it off with a conclusion, the introduction to the film was so vague that it told you nothing. There was little to key in on what to look for during the war time sequences that would make the introduction make sense and by the time it wrapped up it was such a non-interesting conclusion that I wondered why the introduction and end were even included at all. The most interesting segments of the film were the war time sequences and what occurred after they got out of the war almost seems unnecessary. Maybe it would’ve been best to leave it as an anecdote of some sort to tie in at the end; simple white text on a black screen perhaps. But the overly lengthy film (it was nearly three hours long) could have been trimmed and cut so much better if it the needless jokes and useless bookends were removed.
I really wanted to enjoy the film as I didn’t really think it’d be possible to turn me off of a historical World War II piece, but Spike Lee managed to do it. I suppose I should give him some sort of award for doing so, as my tastes in World War II flicks range from enjoying the historically accurate to the absolute unbelievable (you know those things where they mix in supernatural elements or aliens…that type of stuff). Yet he managed to construct something that was really not pleasing to watch in the least. The war time sequences were well done, I’ll give it that, but at this point using period weapons, and tossing dirt up in the air simply isn’t enough to grab me.
Overall Miracle at St. Anna was an incredible disappointment to me. Judging by its reception elsewhere, it wasn’t considered all that hot by others either. It’s amazing that Lee was able to take such an interesting subject as World War II, mix it with a racially charged storyline and still end up with three hours of confusing entertainment. Do I laugh, do I cry? Well apparently both, and at the same time, if this film is to be believed. The mixture of emotions it generates isn’t its only flaw, mind you; the characters themselves, their mannerisms, and how they act are as wholly uninteresting and unentertaining as the rest of the film. There is some incredible talent behind this film, but few seemed to utilize it. Skip It.
Buena Vista has released the film on Blu-ray in a standard elite Blu-ray case. The usual inserts are provided and the films menu is simple and easy to navigate.
The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and accompanying DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio are, as expected, the real highlights of watching the film. Mortar shells, gunfire, and vehicular sounds are spread throughout the room with a brilliant array of speaker work. Whether from in front of you or behind you, the action in the film is relentless and sounds absolutely wonderful. Just about the only times I found myself really invested in the film was due to the sound mix and the visuals provided by the high-definition video were nothing to scoff at either. The image, while washed out and full of grain, also sets you in the time period (apparently they lacked bright color in Italy in 1944, as the muddy hue of the film really does little to uplift spirits) and really only helps further the intensity of the battle sequences. In terms of video and audio Miracle at St. Anna is absolutely breathtaking.
Extras here are anything but plentiful (though they are all in 1080p at least). Starting us out is a selection of nine deleted scenes that really aren’t worth watching as it just adds to the films run time. Deeds Not Words (17:08) is a roundtable discussion of crew and veterans that discuss the life of the African-American soldier during World War II. In case that wasn’t enough, the only other extra on the set, The Buffalo Soldier Experience (21:25) again focuses on African-American soldiers, although this time with the inclusion of historical clips and the like.
And that’s it. Not surprising the extras package is slim on this film as its intake was so disappointing. Those with the proper home theater setup will find the DTS-HD audio worth at least a Rental as it’s quite a potent mix. It’s a shame this film couldn’t have been fleshed out better as I certainly think it’s a story worth hearing and seeing…but in its current state there is simply too much wrong with it to place it along with other war time greats.
Miracle at St. Anna is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.