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.
Like a clown car, but with less comedy and more violent death.
War movies, in my mind, must tread a very fine line in order for me to consider them good. I prefer for them to leave out bombast and propaganda, and I dislike seeing filmmakers pretty up what I regard as a fundamentally brutal and painful exercise in destroying human life. To quote Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” I don’t feel comfortable with anything that purports to show real life also showing war as a ‘good’ thing. At the very least, it should be problematic and leave you feeling conflicted. The problem, of course, is that if the film doesn’t also tell an engaging story few will go and see it.
I also recognize that I have very different expectations and desires for what I’ll call “action movies,” and I’m somehow more ok with an action film showing combat and war in a more glamorous or unrealistic light. The recent A-Team movie, for example, totally ignores many of the realities of war and combat (and physics), and I was ok with that. Some old WWII movies (like Where Eagles Dare) fall into the same category, though they seem to do a far worse job of overtly signaling their lack of contact with reality.
When I saw it, I wasn’t entirely sure where Fury stood with regards to this distinction between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and that left me uncertain of how I should feel. As you might guess by the title of this post, much of the movie delivers an intensely traumatic view of the war… no, that’s not quite it: the movie follows a group of men who have been as traumatized by the war as seems possible, without having them break. Even that may be pushing it, since the men certainly seem broken when you look at them more closely. They’re just still able to do their job, which is killing others before others can kill them. This, in my mind, is part of what makes it such a good war movie. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Fury does have an odd change in tone at one point. It’s almost as though it consciously tries to straddle the divide between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and suffers for it. This doesn’t make it a bad movie, but like I said above, it does leave me less certain of how I should feel. I’ll give you more about this (and some other non-spoilery things) after the break.