Miracle at St. Anna Blu-ray ReviewFebruary 19, 2009
Spike Lee strays far from his comfort zone in Miracle at St. Anna, a bloated World War II epic that teases poignancy one moment only to derail into superfluous subplots the next. Wading through all the missed opportunities for editing does reward a decent and relevant World War II film in which Lee could not resist pushing his fascination with culture clashes between stereotypical brute white superiors and oppressed black men.
Miracle at St. Anna begins decades after World War II with a dilapidated Brooklyn apartment decorated with various World War II mementos including a Purple Heart. An African-American elderly man studies a John Wayne World War II flick on the tube and mumbles to himself, "We fought that war, too." In the next scene this discontent man performs a heinous act in board daylight that begs the question, why?
We learn of the man's identity and motive later on, and even his questionable ironic fate after being apprehended by authorities. Discovering this man is one of four featured African-American Buffalo Soldiers in the final minutes' plays like a cheap rip-off of Saving Private Ryan's big closing reveal. The modern day bookends, which eat up a considerable chunk of runtime, are geared towards a soldier audiences will undoubtedly identify with least. The narrative would have been better off to never leave World War II and focus squarely on the impact of Buffalo Soldiers in the war rather than dabbling in it.
Buffalo Soldiers fighting World War II in battle ravaged Italy are frowned upon and underestimated by their cowardly white superior officer who prefers to watch from afar while his men march into an obvious Nazi trap in a river. Even when four of the soldiers manage to cross the river while their squad mates are mowed down by Nazi machinegun fire as the current spreads their blood, the brutish superior officer doesn't believe the Buffalo Soldiers are capable of making it that far and orders carpet bombing on their position without batting an eyelid.
Discrimination against the Buffalo Soldiers is nothing new for them. Lee explores it throughout the film as the soldiers each question why they are risking their lives for the "white man" after being denied services at a diner during a flashback sequence and generally being treated like a dog by everyone except the local Italians. In this context the message is powerful until the white superior officer shows up again to overact the stereotypical "white man jerk" and elicit equally stereotypical responses from the soldiers.
Every time you become emotionally invested in the Buffalo Soldiers, each superbly acted from start to finish by the four leads, the story wanders to focus on a small Italian village the soldiers hole up in, a small orphaned Italian boy the soldiers take under their wing and Italian resistance fighters who ambush Nazi patrols in the woods. These moments provide some jarring sequences including the brutal murder of an entire small town's population – small children included -- at the hands of maniacal Nazi commander we never get to know or understand his motives. They also waste precious minutes when exploring varying courting practices during an awkward and irrelevant Italian church dance party in the middle of a war zone.
When Miracle at St. Anna finally gets back on track the Buffalo Soldiers find themselves surrounded by the pursuing Nazi's in the Italian town. Though the chips are stacked against the foursome and the odds of survival seem insurmountable, we know during an intense and realistically-shot raid that at least one of them will survive and earn that Purple Heart. Too bad it isn't the one Lee forces you to pull for the entire two hours prior. He might as well introduce himself all over again.
Disney presents Miracle at St. Anna on Blu-ray in a strong 2.35:1 1080p video transfer that supports the deliberately muted and gritty cinematography designed to reflect the time period. All of the usual culprits for issue: black levels, detail and artificial enhancement, are non-factors in an otherwise strong visual high definition showcase.
Miracle at St. Anna arrives early in Disney's new DTS-HD Master Audio era for new Blu-ray Disc releases. This 5.1 channel 48kHz/24-bit mix is equally powerful when gunfire screams and bombs explode as it is subtle when the Buffalo Soldiers converse or slowly wade through tall grass towards a river's mouth. While no reflection of the mix's quality, I would have hoped Lee could extend the combat sequences and applicable bass and surround use as expected from a World War II film in favor of the various subplots.
Perhaps dictated by poor box office results, Disney has kept bonus material to a bare minimum and Lee himself has opted not to provide a director's commentary. The features included are all presented in high definition and two out of three are not to be missed.
The Buffalo Soldier Experience (21:36, HD) is a logical extension of the film that visits with surviving Buffalo Soldiers, explores old clips and photographs, and offers a perspective on their role in the war from historians. This is a must-see featurette for anyone who was touched by any part of the film.
Deeds Not Words (17:08, HD) sees Spike Lee get in front of the camera along with war veterans and author James McBride to reminisce about the war. This is also an excellent supplement that compliments the previous featurette perfectly.
Rounding out the bonus features are nine Deleted Scenes (21:00, HD) serving as unnecessary extensions to existing scenes. With an already long runtime these were most welcome snips from this theatrical cut.
As a film, Miracle at St. Anna comes across as Spike Lee-branded indulgent take on World War II with no outside interference to trim the fat. If you can stomach excess then there are some memorable moments and performances sure to stick with you for months afterwards. As a Blu-ray Disc release, this film's high-def presentation is only limited by Lee's direction and will, at times, light up a home theater even when the narrative struggles to stay on the tracks.
- Dan Bradley
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Miracle at St. Anna
Touchstone - Buena Vista
February 10, 2009
5.1 Dolby TrueHD 48khz/24-bit