Spike Lee has made a career out of one distinct formula. The archetypal Lee movie is a well known concept: a provocative, socially conscious drama usually set in New York that grapples with the difficult subjects of race and class in American society. With every film released since his masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” (1989), the formula has worked.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see how “Miracle at St. Anna” can be considered the most ambitious project of Lee’s career. This time Lee turns his focus to a small village in Tuscany, Italy, where he tells the remarkable story of an all-black division of the American infantry in World War II. “Miracle at St. Anna,” written and adapted for the screen by novelist James McBride, is elaborate, uncompromising and all-encompassing, but above all it is humanizing; as it explores the lives of four soldiers fighting for a country that’s never fought for them. “This uniform don’t change nothing,” one of them says. “This is a white man’s war, and negroes ain’t got nothing to do with it.”
The film opens in New York in the 1980s, when a man is murdered in cold blood in the middle of a crowded post office. Hours later, when a rookie reporter (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives on the scene, he eventually tracks down the gunman with the help of a benevolent police detective (Lee mainstay John Turturro). An interview between the young white reporter and the elderly black gunman ensues, which leads into a flashback of 1940s Italy.
There we find four young soldiers: Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), a bold and confident leader; Bishop (Michael Ealy), a sergeant with an ironic name considering his defiance of the Christian faith; Hector (Laz Alonso), a loyal and likable corporal; and Train (Omar Benson Miller), a private with a humongous frame and an even larger heart. It is these four performances, especially Miller’s, that carry this film.
Train’s life is changed when he meets eight-year-old Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), an Italian boy who fears for his life when the Germans invade and his village comes under fire. A strange bond is formed between the large black man and the tiny light-skinned boy, a bond that transcends their obvious language barrier. Train, who admits he had never so much as touched a white person before meeting this boy (“not even a dead one,” he says), becomes practically a father to a boy to whom he can’t even communicate.
Among the many themes of “Miracle at St. Anna,” the most notable is faith, as the film discusses its ability both to unite and divide people. Two of the film’s most resonant scenes are one in which a distraught Bishop angrily questions God’s motives in letting so many innocent people die in the bloody war, and another in which Angelo curiously clutches the cross hanging from Hector’s neck, proving that not a single spoken word is required for the two to share their faith. The film daringly poses the questions of what faith is and how it manifests itself while deliberately leaving those questions unanswered. There are no right answers.
“Miracle at St. Anna” is not a perfect film. At 155 minutes, it does stretch too long, and its subplots, often revealed through flashbacks within flashbacks, are ultimately little more than distractions from the more compelling main plot: the story of four men and their newly adopted son. But that main plot alone is enough to make for one of the crowning accomplishments of Lee’s career. Lee has come a long way; two decades ago, he was making a living off of simple parables about race in America, and now, he has a new purpose. Lee has made the case, as one character unforgettably declares toward the end of the film, that “miracles are the only sure thing in life.”