By Colin Covert
The Spike Lee war movie is overly long but is rousing fun.
111I found myself pondering why the filmmakers chose to dramatize certain scenes that could have been condensed to a few lines of dialogue, and why they missed the opportunity to show us some pivotal episodes in the tale. I couldn’t get a handle on the scope of the film, too ambitious at 160 minutes, but too modest in scale to be an epic. And yet I found myself happily carried along from its red-herring opening to its implausible tear-jerking conclusion. This is a 90-foot all-you-can-eat buffet table of a film, a guilty pleasure for movie gluttons.
The film starts in the 1970s with a bang, literally, as a New York mail clerk shoots a customer dead. This shocker serves as the framing device for the body of the film, which occurs during the Italian campaign in 1944. U.S. troops were segregated then, and we follow the men of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division as they spearhead a push into German-occupied territory.
Director Spike Lee can’t resist dialogue that feels like it came from the opinion column of a Harlem newspaper, but he’s at the top of his game in these tense early combat scenes. As the so-called Buffalo Soldiers make their cautious advance, Lee swiftly sets up the logistics of the battle, the personalities of a few key G.I.s and the horrific consequences of flesh meeting shrapnel. After a maneuver botched by an incompetent white commander strands four black soldiers behind enemy lines, they take shelter in a hillside Italian hamlet about to be deluged with German reinforcements.
Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a gentle giant, befriends a shell-shocked 9-year-old (Matteo Sciabordi), who conducts one-sided conversations with his dead playmate. Noble Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and opportunistic Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) spar over the village beauty (Valentina Cervi), who conveniently learned English as a nanny. Cpl. Victor Negron (Laz Alonso), the team’s radio operator, relays orders from headquarters to stay put and kidnap a German soldier for interrogation. The film is ostensibly a flashback of Negron’s experiences, but the vantage point shifts capriciously between the Army men, the local partisans, and top brass on each side of the battle lines.
Cinematographer Matty Labitique’s Tuscan locations sear your eyeballs with beauty. The film’s MacGuffin — the dramatic item that ties all the action together while being meaningless in itself — is a beautiful statuary head that survived when the Germans dynamited a centuries-old bridge in Florence. (That’s one of those potentially great scenes the film frustratingly omits.) Pvt. Train carries the head in a mesh sack tied to his belt, and its relationship to the post office shooting moves the story through a brutal SS massacre, a romantic rivalry, art history, a genuine miracle and courtroom drama. The film takes longer than it needs to get where it’s going, but there’s a juicy richness to its digressions that makes it entertaining.
While the screenplay takes pains to show that not all German troops were monsters and some American racists were, it’s told in the sentimental ethnic stereotypes of wartime Hollywood. Italian men gesticulate when they talk and their daughters are earthy, sensual creatures who parade in front of G.I.s topless and unembarrassed. Germans rarely speak when they can sneer. New Yorkers communicate largely through wisecracks.
“Miracle” is far from the sensitive racial politics Lee is capable of delivering. But darned if it isn’t rousing good fun.