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By Brad Cook | February 11, 2009

There’s a phrase you often hear in the film business: the spine of the story. It refers to the through-line of the plot, off which hang the individual scenes. Even subplots should hook into the spine somehow. It’s a major difference from the world of novels, where readers typically accept digressions into characters’ histories, the story world’s background, and so forth.

“Miracle at St. Anna,” unfortunately, suffers from a crooked spine. At 160 minutes, it’s bloated with scenes that don’t need to be there; more on that in a minute. The film tells the story of four G.I.s from World War II’s blacks-only Buffalo Soldiers infantry division. They become separated from their unit and one of them befriends an Italian boy who seems to be an orphan.

The five of them wind up in an Italian village, where they meet a group of Italian partisans who have been fighting the Germans and who arrive with a captured soldier. The Americans want the POW too, since they’ve been instructed to capture a German soldier before their unit arrives to help them, but the Italians insist on finding a translator and interrogating the man before handing him over. Tensions rise between the two groups, each of which also suffers from internal dissent: there’s a traitor among the partisans, and two of the Buffalo Soldiers are intensely interested in an attractive Italian woman.

The relationship between the boy, Angelo, and a naïve but caring Buffalo Soldier named Train occupies the bulk of act two. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about Hector, who we’re introduced to at the beginning of the movie, which is set in 1983. While working at the post office, he shoots a man who we eventually learn was a member of the Italian partisan group during World War II. Why Hector keeps a gun at work, in a government building no less, is an unanswered question. His refusal to say much after his arrest is also curious: he’s not very talkative in the World War II scenes, but that doesn’t explain why he would want to keep mum on his motive, which, by the end of the film, seems reasonable to the viewer. (I’ll put aside the question of whether revenge in cold blood is an admirable thing.) And when he finally does speak during the opening bookend, he says something mysterious that really doesn’t mean anything when we learn what he’s talking about.

The beginning of the film also introduces its Macguffin: a stone head that Train took from an Italian bridge. He believes it grants him special powers, and he talks to Angelo about it quite a bit. Angelo later gives the head to Hector, and it’s found in the man’s apartment after the post office shooting. While the head is an interesting plot device, it really doesn’t serve much purpose other than to bring Hector together with another character at the end of the film, which is set in 1984. Director Spike Lee also showed in his film “Inside Man” that he’s good at building intrigue in a story’s early scenes but not very adept at paying it off in a satisfactory way by the end. Perhaps he should return to movies that are more character-driven, rather than plot device-driven.

Lee and screenwriter James McBride, who adapted his novel, also misfire by bloating the story with scenes that either shouldn’t be there or don’t need to be so long. For example, John Leguizamo appears in the opening 1983 sequence, but he never reappears and his scene has no bearing on the story, other than to deliver information that could have easily been supplied in a more succinct way. Another early scene, featuring the Germans blasting propaganda at the Buffalo Soldiers, goes on much longer than it should, alternating between the battlefield and the transmission’s origin. Finally, a flashback to an earlier racist incident at a diner serves no purpose in driving the plot forward. All of this may have played well in the book (I haven’t read it, so I don’t know for sure), but they’re needless additions to a movie that clocks in at more than 2.5 hours.

I get the point Lee and McBride are trying to make with the propaganda and diner scenes, but it’s one already served by existing scenes that also push the story forward. One of the basic tenets of movie storytelling is that scenes which don’t advance the plot should be cut.

The Blu-ray version of “Miracle at St. Anna” features a few deleted scenes. It would be interesting to see what Lee thought should be excised, given what he chose to include, but unfortunately, they weren’t included in the standard DVD version. In fact, the standard DVD has none of the bonus features found in the Blu-ray edition, for which I’ve given this disc a half-star demerit.

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