Early in his career, Spike Lee made movies so crammed with ideas—some endearingly personal, some bracingly ideological, some painfully banal—that watching them could be as excruciating as it was exciting. In recent years, he's shown more restraint, and in the '00s, he's made three films (25th Hour, Inside Man, and When The Levees Broke) as strong as any the decade has produced. But Lee takes a giant step backward with Miracle At St. Anna, a socially conscious World War II movie that telegraphs its leadenness in its first 10 minutes, and departs two and a half hours later, leaving behind only two or three memorable scenes. (Even the worst Spike Lee joints usually offer more than that.) Miracle is a botch of the first order, the kind of ham-fisted agitprop that Lee would've made in the late '80s if he'd had the budget for it—though it still would have been more forgivably freewheeling.
Miracle At St. Anna opens with a black postal worker shooting and killing a customer at his window. Attempts to unravel why the man flipped out lead to the recovery of a rare fragment of Italian statuary, and a story that stretches back to 1944, when the U.S. was deploying the African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" to serve as bait for the Nazis in Italy. In the story, one platoon advances farther than their superiors expected, and gets involved in a standoff between the local fascists, partisan rebels, and the Nazis. While plotting out their next move, the soldiers reflect on why they're fighting on behalf of a country that shuns them.
In the abstract, this sounds like a fine idea for a movie. But the abstract doesn't contain Terence Blanchard's relentless, mournful martial score, or the routine-to-the-point-of-cliché battle scenes, or the broad comic relief that borders on shuck-and-jive. Miracle At St. Anna stabilizes after an outright awful first hour, and becomes merely a middling war movie with a heightened social consciousness. And the movie reaches something like an epiphany during one sublime scene where the American troops look at Axis propaganda posters that depict the U.S. as a nation of mongrels. (At its noblest, Lee's film is trying to counteract the Hollywood propaganda that has written African-Americans out of the WWII narrative.) But for most of its punishingly long running time, Miracle plays like School Daze transplanted to the European front, with the token militant, the token uplift-the-race type, and the token buffoon all marching inexorably toward Checkpoint Irony.