Director Spike Lee skillfully follows up his biggest hit ever, the entertaining Inside Man, with an intense and violent look at the African-American experience in World War II. It specifically focuses on four members of the 92nd Infantry Division — "buffalo soldiers," as they were nicknamed — trying to stave off the German SS in a small Tuscan town in Italy.
At 160 minutes, Miracle at St. Anna could have benefited from another trip to the editing room, but it remains an affecting experience if only because blacks are rarely portrayed in Hollywood movies about the war, a point Lee drills home in the present-day prologue in which one of the soldiers, now an old man, watches the lily-white all-star epic The Longest Day on TV and utters, "We fought for our country too!"
The movie centers on a flashback to the personal plights of the four soldiers and their interaction with a young Italian boy they take under their wing. The Nazis are moving closer to taking over, and the U.S. Army forces there are trying to prevent a massacre. It's likely that the residents of this town had never seen a black person before, and it's the interactions between the curious local residents and the soldiers that make this story so unique.
Particularly touching is the relationship between the young boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and Pfc. Sam Train (played by Forest Whitaker look-alike Omar Benson Miller), who discovers the young man. Miller is sensational, bringing emotion and spirit to the vulnerable Train. His scenes opposite the appealing Sciabordi are played to win the audience's heart, a necessity in a movie that pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the horrors of war.
The leader of the group though is 2nd Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps, played with conviction and complexity by the remarkable Derek Luke. Stamps is an officer who isn't sure of his place in America but believes in the cause. Luke captures the ambiguity of his character and shows us his confusion in the eye of duty. Luke is as fine here as in Catch a Fire and Antwone Fisher; he's an actor just waiting for a bigger audience to cotton on to what critics already know. Michael Ealy, as the con man-like Sgt. Cummings is all bravado and swagger, and Ealy nails the guy who doesn't even think he should be in these circumstances. Rounding out the main four is radio operator Cpl. Hector Negron (well-played by Laz Alonso), a Puerto Rican from Harlem who ends up assigned to the all-black division.
A host of other name actors make appearances, if not necessarily much of an impression, including Lee favorite John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kerry Washington, and D.B. Sweeney. The biggest waste is John Leguizamo, whose brief appearance early on is a head-scratcher. The large Italian contingent, in addition to Sciabordi, is led nicely by Pierfrancesco Favino and Valentina Cervi.
Lee frames the film with sequences set in present-day New York, involving a mysterious shooting and subsequent trial. This gives him a way to flash back to the heart of the title "miracle," the events that took place in that small Italian town in 1944, and the bravery of a group of African-American soldiers who let their inherent humanity trump the fears of war.
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: James McBride
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Matteo Sciabordi, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt