A HUGE BAG OF ISSUES TO
published September 26,
Miracle at St. Anna
now playing nationwide
Spike Lee’s World War II epic Miracle at St. Anna reminded me of a certain film critic’s dilemma – is it legitimate to criticize a film
for being “too long?”
I think the answer is generally no. Unlike
the filmmaker, the critic doesn’t slave over the movie for months thinking deeply about his options. A critic doesn’t have to worry about pace
and continuity and giving the film its full dimension, and a critic never gets to see how other options might work or fail. Generally, for a
critic to flippantly say that the filmmaker could have trimmed this and that shows a lack of respect for the involved labor.
That said, I think there is a case for it
with the 160–minute St. Anna. This is not because there are four or five scenes that could easily
hit the wastebasket and send us home ten minutes earlier. Lee simply keeps running headlong into a new story and then another new story. He
never quite figures out when to stop and chew the story that he has.
An unexplained murder in a post office in
1984 leads to the story of a mysterious missing sculptured head from a bridge in
Italy. Which leads to the story of the all-black 92nd Infantry division and a memory of a 1944 skirmish along an Italian river. Which leads to
the story of four soldiers stranded behind enemy lines on the wrong side of the waterway. Which leads to the story of finding an Italian orphan
with an imaginary friend. Which leads to the soldier’s time hiding in a small Italian mountainside villa. Which leads to the story of its
inhabitants and their legends about the nearby mountain. Which leads to a story of Italian partisans fighting in the hills. Which leads to the
secret of a Nazi massacre in a neighboring town. It’s not that it’s too much to follow. It’s just that following means never staying in one place
long enough to fully appreciate.
I think this points partially to Spike
Lee’s dilemma as a filmmaker. He makes films for two reasons. He wants to tell important stories. More than that, he wants to right past
racist wrongs. It’s an admirable mission that makes for passionate filmmaking. But when placed in the context of something as broad as World
War II, it can lead the story all over the place. His soldiers are not merely asked to fight Nazis. They’re asked to fight every injustice Lee
While St. Anna lags in too many places, it has patches of excellent filmmaking. The soldier’s river crossing while
the Germans blast Axis Sally propaganda is among Lee’s most gripping scenes. It says in five crisp minutes all the things about race that he
dithers with for two hours and forty minutes. I also love how, during the climactic battle, Lee uses the geography of the village – its hills
and tight cobblestone alleys – to create a different style from the open-field slaughters common to World War II films.
There was an impressive World War II film
from several years ago called Days of Glory which dealt with similar racial issues from the French
and North African perspective. Glory is trimmer, more fluid, more subtle, and more
effective. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lee has seen it. If not, I wish that he had.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com