Friday, September 26, 2008

The then and now of war


I read James McBride's "Miracle at St. Anna" last summer while traveling in Tuscany. Someone had suggested to my wife that she read the book on our trip because it dealt with black American soldiers who were fighting in many of the same areas we were visiting. I picked up McBride's novel after she'd finished.

I love Tuscany, but wasn't all that impressed with McBride's book. That surprised me because I greatly admired McBride's autobiography, "The Color of Water," which dealt with his interracial upbringing as the child of a black father and a white mother. I may not have been swept away by "Miracle," but I did learn something about the wartime contribution of black soldiers in the 92nd Division, a.k.a., the Buffalo Soldiers.

Like McBride's novel, the movie version also benefits from its brush with history. Working from a script by McBride, director Spike Lee closely follows the novel, which tells the story of four members of the 92nd who find themselves stranded in Colognora, a village in the Tuscan hills. Unlike their compatriots, they've managed to survive a devastating German ambush.

Once the soldiers settle into the village, the story evolves in ways that touch on tensions among the men, the relationship between a hulking soldier and a 7-year-old boy he rescues and the simmering conflicts among the Italians about whether one of their number has betrayed a partisan. Any one of these might have made for a strong movie, but their combination tends to mute the picture's overall power, at least until the third act when the various plot currents converge.

For those unfamiliar with a period in which U.S. armed forces were still segregated by race, "Miracle" may prove a bit of a revelation. Through flashbacks and through some of the soldier's dialogue, Lee brings out the worst aspects of a period in which black soldiers were fighting and dying for a country that didn't accord them their full measure of rights. At one point, one of the soldiers -- a sergeant played by Derek Luke -- says that he feels a greater sense of freedom in this war-ravaged Italian village than he ever did at home. The irony is powerful. The white Italian villagers more readily accept their black visitors than the owner of a southern U.S. diner, who tries to bully them in an incident shown in flashback.

Lee's movie played at the Toronto Film Festival, where it received a mostly lukewarm reception. I can see why. I found myself bored by parts of it, intrigued by other sections and only occasionally moved by any of it. It's possible that Lee stuck too closely to the novel, a decision that results in the picture's two-hour and 40-minute running time, too much for a film that's hardly epic in scope. "Miracle" plays like a collection of small, related movies that don't always cohere in the most forceful ways.

A framing device about a murder and a missing Florentine artifact don't help either. The movie begins in the 1980s when a New York postal clerk shoots and kills a man who approaches his window. The rest of the story explains why this apparently solid citizen drew a German Luger in what looks like a senseless murder.

Lee can be forgiven for not doing much to develop the individual characters. The soldiers are in the midst of a war, and don't necessarily have time to dot every ''i'' and cross every "t" of their backgrounds. Luke plays Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, a noncom who's trying to do take command of a deteriorating situation; Michael Ealy appears as Sergeant Bishop Cummings, a soldier who has difficulty identifying with the loftier sentiments of what he views as the white man's war; Laz Alonso portrays Hector Negron, the Puerto Rican member of the group and its only Italian speaker; and Omar Benson Miller, appears as the baby-faced Sam Train, a mentally challenged private with a huge frame and a heart to match. Train's relationship with the boy he rescues (Matteo Sciabordi) gives the movie its emotional center.

The story's Italian component (with subtitles) revolves around Renata (Valentina Cerri), a young woman whose father (Omero Antonutti) supported the Fascists.

I can't say that Lee proves himself a master of combat footage, and it may be a matter of taste, but Lee's tendency to fill every scene with Terence Blanchard's musical score annoyed me; I felt as though I were reading a book that someone already had underlined.

By the time its implausible coda arrives, "Miracle at St. Anna" has covered lots of ground, but maybe not deeply enough. At the Cannes Film Festival, Lee criticized Clint Eastwood ("Flags of Our Fathers") for neglecting the contribution of black soldiers during WW II. Fair enough, but it's at least questionable whether the overly fragmented "Miracle at St. Anna" goes far enough in making up for the deficiency.


"The Lucky Ones" inevitably (and to its detriment) will be compared to William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives," a landmark movie about about problems faced by veterans returning from WW II. The two movies are comparable only because each deals with post-combat adjustments by veterans. I keep waiting for a really great feature about Iraq and its impact; a half hour into "The Lucky Ones," I scribbled in my notebook: "This isn't it."

Rather than giving us a memorable portrait of adjustment to civilian life, director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") turns "The Lucky Ones'' into a road movie dotted with hardships and humor and centered on three vets: Cheever (Tim Robbins) is an older man who had be called up for the Iraq war; Rachel McAdams portrays a young fighting woman; and Michael Pena plays a soldier who was wounded in Iraq and who worries about a pending reunion with his girlfriend.

To me, the most telling thing about "The Lucky Ones" can be found in a crucial difference between Wyler's movie and its weaker contemporary counterpart. Wyler's veterans came home for good; two of Burger's vets are on leave before they're scheduled to recycle back to Iraq.

The movie captures some of the disconnect between those who fight wars and those who stay at home. Burger also is aided by the three fine actors he has at his disposal, but the script by Burger and Dirk Wittenburn, lets them down. "The Lucky Ones'' is episodic and not keenly realized.

At one point, the three soldiers encounter a tornado. If the filmmakers couldn't afford a better special effect, they should have dreamed up something else. I don't want to make too much of this low-rent looking tornado, but it struck me as emblematic of a movie that never really does what it should have.

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