A murder mystery is one of several plot elements in Spike Lee's sprawling World War II movie. Miracle at St. Anna is not a sprawling war movie like, say, The Longest Day. That's the John Wayne movie that an old man watches on television at the start of Miracle at St. Anna. The old man tells the movie star, "We fought for our country too." By we, it turns out, he means the Latino and African American "Buffalo Soldiers" he fought with, in segregated units, during with war. When the old man, a postal worker named Hector Negron, shoots a customer trying to buy a 20 cent stamp, it is seemingly for no reason. A cub reporter for the Post (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tries to get the story out of him.
Miracle at St. Anna is sprawling in the sense that the movie dwells on several key themes: race relations in America, Fascism and racism in Europe, miracles and supernaturalism, religion and superstition, innocence and cynicism, the futility and cruelty of war. Any one of those themes would have been adequate for an average movie, but Miracle at St. Anna aims to be more than an average movie. The murder mystery, which tangentially involves the head from a broken Italian statue, and takes place in New York in 1983, is a framing story around a core wartime story, which is told in flashbacks (with the occasional flashback within a flashback), and which begins with a devastating friendly-fire incident. The man connecting the two stories (or the many stories) is Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), a devoutly Catholic, Puerto Rican soldier from New York, and one of four Americans who penetrate enemy lines and find themselves in a picturesque Tuscan village in 1944.
The village is divided into intermingling partisans and fascists, including partisan sympathizer Renata (Valentina Cervi, in a deeply implausible role), and her fascist father Ludovico (Omero Antonutti). Renata's family billets the four Americani and a small, troubled boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Angelo, who appears to have supernatural visions and powers, was rescued and adopted by the deeply superstitious Private Train (Omar Benson Miller), an oversized man-boy who carries the statue head around for good luck. Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) and Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) make up the rest of the platoon -- they squabble constantly, about the trustworthiness of their white commanders, about the racial contrasts between Italy and America, and about Renata.
The screenplay by James McBride (based on his novel), has a tendency to underline its themes with speeches and arguments which can get a little preachy. Lee clearly has in mind to make Miracle at St. Anna the war movie that should have been -- but never was -- made about the overlooked members of the "greatest generation," the soldiers of color who wore the same (color) uniforms and bled the same (color) blood as their more frequently lauded white counterparts. To that end, Miracle at St. Anna is meant to be a long overdue counterpoint to movies like The Longest Day. The point is well-taken, even if the delivery is overly obvious (where subtlety would have done just as well). It's a lot to ask of a movie that it set such a long and consistently whitewashed record straight, and Miracle at St. Anna wants to do a whole lot more in addition to that, so moments of heavy-handedness may just make the point faster, if not better.
The Tuscan village is surrounded by Germans who, as the war draws to a close, have apparently adopted a scorched earth policy towards Italian civilians, although they are also doggedly pursuing a vendetta against a partisan known as "The Butterfly" (Pierfrancesco Favino). Lee stages several dramatic and wrenching scenes of wartime massacres and battles -- they give the movie gravitas and weight that helps to balance some of the fluff. Much of the fluff comes via the odd story between Angelo and Train, which veers the movie from sturdy, solid, and powerfully effective realism into the airier domain of magical realism, and, even worse, sappy sentimentality. Lee has always been a somewhat idiosyncratic filmmaker, and his idiosyncrasies are evident here, although they mostly work for the film rather than against it. Miracle at St. Anna at times seems to meander and lose focus, but it does so in ways that give it a warmth and humanity that puts the inhumanity of war into sharper focus.