Spike Lee has made so many didactic movies in his career that it wouldn’t have surprised me if his latest — “Miracle at St. Anna,” which looks at a squad of black G.I.s fighting the Nazis in World War II — was yet another. What did surprise me, though, was that this time around Spike decided to mix his didacticism with a splash of fizzy magic realism.
Now those two angles seem about as compatible as black-turbaned sourpuss Ayatollah Khamenei and fun-loving AV queen Maria Ozawa. Magic realism is best known for its fuzzy feel-good vibe and cloying quirkiness (a la “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “Chocolat”); didacticism, on the other hand, is known for hammer-to-head point-scoring and strident affirmation of right and wrong (a la “Michael Clayton” or “Valkyrie”). Magic realism relies on coincidence and miracles, didacticism on real-world argument and reason.
Lee tries to split the difference in “Miracle at St. Anna,” and the results are a bit of a muddle. Set in Tuscany in 1944 after the allied offensive in Italy had turned into a long, hard slog, Lee’s film mixes the war-is-hell realism of “Saving Private Ryan” with the quaint and colorful Italianismo of “Cinema Paradiso.”
“Miracle at St. Anna” boasts a convoluted tale that begins in 1983 and flashes back to the war. It opens with unbelievable coincidences and doesn’t let up: An army vet who works as a postal clerk recognizes a customer at his counter and suddenly shoots him dead. As the film progresses, we realize that this man must have been packing heat at work — at a post office, no less! — every day for four decades on the slim chance a guy from the other side of the globe might turn up there. As people in Lee’s neighborhood of Brooklyn might say: “gitouttaheeah!”
After the vet goes postal, we see a man in Italy with his mistress, who, climbing into his lap, throws the newspaper he’s reading — about the post-office murder — out the window; it lands in the lap of another guy, who sees the story and spills his coffee in shock, for (as we learn) he also knew the vet all those years ago.
At this point, the film jumps back into 1944 and stays there until the final reel (which turns out to be a massive lift from “The Shawshank Redemption”).
A platoon of black G.I.s from the 92nd Infantry Division — all black, mind you, since the military was still segregated back then — attempts a dangerous river crossing and is ambushed by waiting German forces. A few soldiers make it across through the hailstorm of fire, but their incompetent white commander drops a barrage down on them; a contemptuous redneck, he refuses to believe that any black soldiers could have advanced so far. As usual for a Spike Lee film, he has a point here, but oversells it: He’s so concerned with demonizing the white U.S. officers that their Nazi counterparts come off as practically gentlemen in comparison. (One even gives a weapon to a wounded G.I. to give him a fighting chance!)
Four soldiers survive the friendly fire and regroup in a nearby farmhouse; as played by Derek Luke, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, and Laz Alonso, the men are four very different types, ranging from Luke’s no-nonsense Sergeant Stamps to Ealy’s shiftless Private Bishop. Miller plays a spaced-out giant of a man named Train who befriends a local boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), who he finds caught in the crossfire. Train insists on taking the boy to safety, despite Bishop’s complaints (“I wouldn’t risk my life for no white boy”), so the soldiers reconnoiter a local village and invite themselves into a home there. As the sarge tries to contact the local partisans and figure out where the Germans are, Bishop busies himself hitting on the household’s curvaceous daughter (Valentina Cervi),while Train is convinced Angelo has some secret knowledge about the mysterious “sleeping man.”
Luke and Alonso acquit themselves well, with solid, nuanced portrayals of men who aren’t really sure what they’re fighting for — a racist country that considers them second-class citizens? — but nevertheless do the best they can. Ealy’s performance, though, suffers from being wildly anachronistic: I doubt many G.I.s in 1944 said “aaaa-ight” instead of “all right”; called their fellow black soldiers “niggah”; or walked with that decidedly post-hip-hop, side-to-side saunter. This seems as much a parody as the Alpa Chino character in “Tropic Thunder,” though not an intentional one. Miller, meanwhile, is just bizarre, with a slightly “simple-minded” delivery and enough eye-rolling and shuffling to make him seem like a character from the bad old days of “Uncle Tom” racial stereotyping.
“Miracles are the only sure thing in life,” says one character toward the film’s end. I don’t know about that, but it would be a miracle at this point to see a Spike Lee film that was as tight and explosive as “Do the Right Thing” or “Jungle Fever.” He’s best when he has a burr in his butt, and that usually takes something current. His best work of the decade, by far, is his exhaustive documentary on Hurricane Katrina and the death of New Orleans, “When The Levees Broke” (2006). Still unreleased in Japan, that film is well worth tracking down on DVD.