Spike Lee pulls out all the stops with this sprawling World War II drama

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pike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" is an ambitious sprawl, a picture that's dramatically compelling in some places and plodding and didactic in others. It's also occasionally moving, even when it bends too close to sentimentality. Watching it, I got the sense that Lee had simply decided to pull out all the stops, to sink himself into one hell of a story -- part World War II drama, part mystery, part meditation on what it means to fight for a country that might not give a damn about you -- and see where it might lead him. Unfortunately, it leads him in circles. And yet there's enough vitality here to keep the picture going, even through the rough patches.

"Miracle at St. Anna," based on James McBride's novel of the same name (McBride wrote the screenplay himself), begins in 1983 with a murder in Harlem, and the plot thickens when the police discover, tucked away in a crumpled Macy's bag, a rare artifact: a marble head that lost its body when the Nazis blew up a Florentine bridge. The head is less the key to the story than a placemarker to help us find our way through it: The back story to the murder occurs in 1944, in Tuscany, as four members of the 92nd Infantry -- consisting of soldiers of color, who also went by the name "Buffalo Soldiers" -- make their way through the Italian countryside fighting what one character refers to as "a white man's war." They've been hung out to dry by a white superior officer, a Southerner who chooses to disbelieve the soldiers' reports that they've made it behind enemy lines; he orders artillery strikes on their position.

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