Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mirace at St. Anna and The Lucky Ones

By Elise Nakhnikian

Miracle at St. Anna and The Lucky Ones are less compelling – and a lot less complex – than most of the Iraq docs that have had such a hard time getting booked in theaters. Still, they’re both sporadically successful at getting us to care about their conflicted soldiers.

Much of the credit for what works in The Lucky Ones probably belongs to the casting director. The dialogue and characters are pretty corny, and the setup is hackneyed – three Iraq vets head home in a road trip that becomes a journey of bonding and self-discovery. But the actors are so good you can almost overlook the rest.

As Fred Cheever, the middle-aged family man who’s just finished his third and final tour of duty, Tim Robbins is touchingly gentle, a benign surrogate father to his much younger companions. Michael Peña’s TK Poole is the kind of bullshit artists who doesn’t fool anyone but himself, but Peña makes him sympathetic rather than grating. And Rachel McAdams’s Colee is a skinless optimist whose wide-open guilelessness is annoying at first – until you start to see the insecurity and rootlessness behind it.

Miracle at St. Anna has its own unworldly innocent. Train (Omar Benson Miller) is a gentle giant with the expressively homely face, diffident manner, and awkward bulk of a young Charles Laughton. He’s also one of several fictional members of a real all-black infantry division that fought in Italy during WWII (the movie is based on a novel by James McBride, who also wrote the screenplay).

Train and three other soldiers – stalwart Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), streetwise glamour-boy Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), who doesn’t even have one clear defining character – go through their own version of a road trip, getting trapped behind enemy lines and holing up with an Italian family that sides with the partisans.

Lee’s movies nearly always have a point to make or a historical moment to capture, giving them a sense of urgency and purpose. This time around, he’s determined to give black WWII vets their due, acknowledging not just how they helped win the war but the racism internal conflicts they endured while doing so. That’s rich turf to till – Days of Glory did great things with it last year – but Lee goes broad and shallow rather than digging deep, risking didacticism and stereotyping in his scramble to set the record straight.

St. Anna is more Bamboozled than Do the Right Thing, a kitchen-sink compendium of too many confusing minor characters and subplots, too many speeches, and too many unconvincing relationships – most problematically the relationship between Train and a trauma-addled boy he rescues, which feels contrived and is central to the story.

Just to give you one example, the story’s framed by a muddled bit about a marble head taken from a church and a murder trial. Then there’s a frame around that frame, which involves a young reporter (an uncharacteristically clunky Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who talks, for some reason, like a tough guy in a Depression-era gangster picture.

Even Terence Blanchard’s generally fine soundtrack occasionally wells up too loudly, and Lee’s constantly prowling camera sometimes overdoes it, whirling dizzyingly around two characters as they talk or creeping up to a closed door like a stir-crazy cat.

But the truth beneath the fiction is strong enough to break through all those barriers now and then. McBride and Lee dramatize the conflict most effectively through an ongoing argument between Stamps and Bishop. Lee films one of their showdowns against a war propaganda poster that says “Fraticide,” and the two sometimes seem capable of killing one another. But mostly they just yell, setting up camp on opposite sides of the divide over whether to fight for a country that treats them like dirt – like slaves, as a silky-voice Nazi propagandist says in a radio broadcast aimed at talking them into defecting.

Stamps does his duty for his country without stopping much to question how it treats him, holding tight to his faith that his children will have a brighter future that he can ever hope for. Bishop has no such faith. All he wants to do is survive, protect his fellow soldiers, and try to have some fun along the way.

The soldiers in The Lucky Ones aren’t fighting for idealistic reasons either: They just need jobs, and the Army’s always hiring.

The John Wayne film Hector watches at the beginning of St Anna glorified combat by showing servicemen as macho ideals. Wayne’s soldiers were always as certain of the rightness of cause and country as they were of their eventual victory. But ever since we got mired in Vietnam, that certitude feels outdated.

St. Anna and The Lucky Ones are not great art, but they capture the mood of our time as clearly as Wayne captured the mood of his, mirroring the ambivalence of a “volunteer” army comprised almost exclusively of the poor, the disenfranchised, and those who have, as TK would say, “no skills.”

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