Saving Private Conflicts

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Miracle at St. Anna

Directed by Spike Lee

Running Time: 160 min.

When a filmmaker uses familiar images and common history to express ideas, this style—this pop idiom—opens up a breadth and depth of meaning. That’s why Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan became the standard-setting war movie of the past quarter-century and why Spike Lee couldn’t get it out of his head when doing Miracle at St. Anna.

Don’t be fooled by the kerfluffle Lee instigated with Clint Eastwood at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival over “the history of Hollywood and its omission of the one million African-American men and women who contributed to World War II.” That was a smokescreen for Lee’s ongoing Spielberg rivalry (as in his Malcolm X scene disparaging E.T.), and it distracts from the oppositional petulance that actually fuels the bitter, sanctimonious and drawn-out Miracle at St. Anna. The story of an all-black infantry unit that gets separated from its platoon in 1944 Tuscany doesn’t rectify Hollywood’s depiction of the black G.I. experience. As another example of Lee settling scores, it ruins its own premise by attempting to out-do Saving Private Ryan.

This is not just an artistic screw-up; it’s an ideological catastrophe. By focusing on black soldiers, Lee argues that only his own terms (a literal and numerical representation of black faces) matter. He jumbles historical depiction with modern attitude. His troops are a mix of old and new stereotypes: Stamps (Derek Luke) is dutiful, Bishop (Michael Ealy) is profane, Train (Omar Benson Miller) is superstitious and Negron (Laz Alonso) is a skeptic. Speaking in anachronistic phrases—“That’s skippy” and “I gotta book”—they blend nostalgia with hipness. Lee offers these obvious, superficial characteristics instead of subtler forms of meaningful portraiture—such as Vin Diesel’s appearance as an indeterminate American ethnic type in Saving Private Ryan. The rich ambiguity of Diesel’s racial identity demonstrated how Spielberg’s pop idiom becomes politically magnanimous.

The pettiness in Miracle at St. Anna limits the soldiers to their racial identity—and reduces WWII to a race war. It’s insulting—residue of hip-hop’s 1980s-’90s petulance capitalizing on the racial tension that Lee has not outgrown. Didn’t he hear Nas proclaim “hip-hop is dead”? Lee’s strident drama, belaboring the sense of social injustice WWII black soldiers faced and actively opposed, may appeal to hip-hop-era cynicism, but it does little to convey how those troops, called “Buffalo Soldiers,” actually felt: their awe at being uprooted to another part of the world; encountering a uniform but inspiring camaraderie; discovering others who are like and unlike themselves. All the cultural details found in literary war accounts (from Guadalcanal Diary, The Naked and the Dead to Bloods) are missing—replaced by hectoring identity politics.

Lee’s diatribe starts with an extraneous 1983 prologue where Negron, now an elderly veteran, watches The Longest Day on TV. He scoffs at the scene of John Wayne’s Lt. Col. commanding that the bodies of ambushed G.I.s be reclaimed. Negron sulks: “Pilgrim, we fought for this country, too!” It raises Public Enemy’s old Do the Right Thing anti-John Wayne invective; yet the fact is, in that televised moment, Wayne is stirringly heroic—in ways a veteran would surely appreciate. Lee uses Negron to mouth Bamboozled-style grievance. But Miracle at St. Anna might have been meaningful and original had it confirmed black veterans’ patriotism, their deep faith and commitment. Why must every Spike Lee movie badger a cause? Inadvertently, Lee negates the significance of even those black actors like Canada Lee and James Edwards who valiantly represented American patriots in WWII movies from Lifeboat (1944) to Home of the Brave (1949), as well as the bold representation of black G.I. experience in John Huston’s staggering, controversial 1946 war documentary Let There Be Light.

WWII has been documented in such a long and widespread film tradition that Lee’s once postmodern revisionism is no longer helpful. His subtext here is the effluvia of war-era propaganda—highlighting a vintage U.S. war bonds poster (“Pvt. Joe Louis says, ‘God Is On Our Side’”) and a wall of the Tuscany village plastered with Nazi propaganda featuring racist caricatures. These recreated artifacts don’t substitute for credible characterization, and Lee’s depiction of Nazi soldiers and Italian partisans is as superficial as his black G.I. clichés. His most heinous trope spotlights a radio broadcast by a Nazi version of Tokyo Rose who taunts the black soldiers to defect (which U.S. Army transmitters intercept). Lee elaborately dramatizes the hoax, showing a glamorous blonde in a sexy red dress, waving a cigarette holder and speaking into a microphone. It deliberately recalls the iconic female lips in The Warriors sending out messages to urban gang members, only here the messages are poisonous: “The American white man is raping your wives and daughters. Jody is in your bed right now.” That “Jody,” the rascal figure from Black Southern folklore, is an unlikely Nazi trick. This demoralizing spiel is Lee’s own propaganda.

Versed in media intimidation, Lee plays to everyone’s racism—white sentiment, black resentment—which prevents most people from calling him out. But this antagonism produces an aggravating style of drama. The war story is bracketed by elderly Negron on trial for (preposterously) killing a man in 1983. A flashback to the war situates him in a village besieged by Nazi storm troopers—a delirious parallel for U.S. racism that gives Lee the chance to restage Saving Private Ryan–style battles. Their ineptitude only confirms Spielberg’s incomparable craft. Lee seems to think that by challenging Spielberg, he’s striking a blow against the status quo—not realizing that his crabby, awkward style represents the hipster status quo.

Several kinds of outrage occur in the flashback: First, Train, the oversized G.I. who protects an Italian orphan boy, is a countrified dimwit (combining Of Mice and Men’s gentle giant with The Green Mile’s magic Negro); he edges over into the ridicule Lee typically shows for Southern black characters. Second, attempting to save the village, the G.I.s are outnumbered, and Lee stages a couple combat scenes. As presented, it’s all aesthetically suspect and historically spurious—especially the massacre at St. Anna’s church which imitates the apocryphal church-burning in The Patriot. The image of an infant crying over its dead mother’s bare breast may be the ugliest since Lee’s She Hate Me (and then he caps it hideously).

Lee doesn’t have the distaste for war that Hollywood’s war-vet filmmakers learned from experience. If that explains why the battles feel so fake (dreaded yet blithe), it may also explain why the attempt at a heartfelt conclusion seems so false. Train’s religiosity is repeated in Negron’s trial outcome. None of it is credible—especially not the deus ex machina of Superlawyer Kerry Washington who enters wearing a Vivica A. Fox mask. Miracle at St. Anna misuses pop idioms. Having nothing to say about war, just his usual harangue, Lee goes for cheap effects. These include a lugubrious Terence Blanchard score and an unironic gospel choir climax—misappropriating Spielberg’s patriotism and agape. For a movie so full of enmity—from concept to execution—it’s laughable when Miracle suddenly turns toward spirituality and the title is acted out. I won’t reveal how, but it’s sure to stand as the WTF! finale of the year.

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