They’re looking at the narrative, just offscreen.
When I first saw the title and plot summary for Miracle at St. Anna, I thought that I was going to see a refashioned telling of the battle of Sommocolonia (which I’d just read about shortly before watching the movie). I was totally wrong. This movie was never quite what I expected it to be.
Possibly valuable, probably confusing, Miracle at St. Anna is a composite of several different stories, all mashed together in a fascinating but bewildering mix of historical fiction that feels more like very subdued historical magical realism. The narrative focus wanders back and forth, encompassing so many story lines that it never feels like it zeroes in on any one of them. Nor does it ever focus enough to mold a sense of coherence out of the disparate pieces. I like the story at its core, I think, but … I feel lost. It’s almost too nebulous to really understand, in some ways, and it certainly leaves many questions entirely unanswered. Or maybe it answers some questions, but in unsatisfying ways? It’s a bit of a mess.
But why? It seemed so promising, after all.
I was happy with how Spike Lee interspersed the movie’s story with the black GIs’ disheartening and disorienting experience of racism at home and acceptance abroad. Most American war movies are about the experience of soldiers leaving home and living in peril, terror, and conflict abroad; but it makes good sense that a story about black soldiers in World War 2 would also focus on the paradox of being more welcomed and respected by the citizens of the country they are invading than by their fellow Americans at home or at the front.
So far so good, at least for me.
The movie opens with a framing narrative surrounding the war story to introduce us and give context; this actually works pretty well too, at least as an entry point. But then the framing narrative is almost ignored for the rest of the film. When we do finally return to the frame at the end of the film, we better understand the events at the beginning but are given what seems a deus ex machina rather than an internal resolution. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s reporter, who appeared to offer us a secondary narrative character at the start, returns as a tie-in but gets no resolution and doesn’t serve any purpose that I can see. Other characters are introduced briefly around the same time with similar narrative treatment, but only one of them appears to matter.
The whole conclusion feels odd and disjointed, which is a big problem when you’re watching a two hour and forty minute movie. I think, in large part, this confusion is because of a lack of narrative focus. I want there to be a more concrete, more cohesive story told, something that the film really zooms in on telling as one piece or one theme. But Miracle at St. Anna doesn’t do that. Instead it starts several stories, cuts off several of them without any feeling of resolution, and finishes with something that almost feels dream-like; even though the final resolution concretely builds on previous events, some of those events (towards the very end) are best described as hallucinatory. So when the film finishes with dream-like imagery layered on concrete imagery layered on a dream-like resolution… like I said, you end up with something odd and disjointed. Especially when you compound that with the lack of narrative focus earlier in the film.
So, in conclusion? I feel like the movie was definitely interesting and told a fascinating story, but I’m not sure that I’d watch it again. And I couldn’t recommend it to someone else without some qualifications. I’d be curious to hear what other people thought of it, and who they thought the story followed, and what else they thought was going on, but this is one of those times when I look at the film and say “Yeah, that was art, and it might have been good art, but I’m not sure I can tell and I’m not sure how much I liked it.”