It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" contains scenes of brilliance, interrupted by scenes that meander. There is too much, too many characters, too many subplots. But there is so much here that is powerful that it should be seen no matter its imperfections. There are scenes that could have been lost to more decisive editing, but I found after a few days that my mind did the editing for me, and I was left with lasting impressions.
The story involves four African-American soldiers behind enemy lines in Italy in World War II. It's a story that needs telling. It begins with an old black man looking at an old John Wayne movie on TV, and murmuring, "We fought that war, too." The next day, he goes to work at the post office and does something that startles us. The movie will eventually explain who he is and why he did it. But in a way we don't need that opening scene, and we especially don't need the closing scene, not the way it plays, when a man walks slowly toward a seated man on a beach. The problem is, the wrong man is doing the walking.
You may disagree. There is one "extraneous" scene that is absolutely essential. While in the Deep South for basic training, the four soldiers are refused service in a local restaurant, while four German POWs relax comfortably in a booth. Such treatment was not uncommon. Why should blacks risk their lives for whites who hate them? The characters argue about this during the movie, after boneheaded decisions and racist insults from a white officer. One has the answer: He's doing it for his country, for his children and grandchildren, and because of his faith in the future. The others are doing it more because of loyalty to their comrades in arms, which is what all wars finally come down to during battle.
"Miracle at St. Anna" has one of the best battle scenes I can remember, on a par with "Saving Private Ryan" but more tightly focused in a specific situation rather than encompassing a huge panorama. The four soldiers find themselves standing in a river, with a Nazi loudspeaker blasting the sultry voice of "Axis Sally," who promises them sexy women and racial equality in Germany. Their white superior officer orders artillery strikes on their position because he can't believe any blacks could have possibly have advanced so far. Then the Nazis open fire. The visceral impact of the episode is astonishing.