Inspired by the 1944 Sant Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated on an Italian town by the Nazis Miracle at St. Anna focuses on four members of the 92nd Infantry Division African Americans also known as Buffalo Soldiers who served in Italy during the final year of WWII. These four find themselves in compromising positions when they befriend a frightened young Italian boy in a remote village that is about to come under attack by the German SS. The fact that this village has likely never seen a black man before becomes the centerpiece of the story that seeks to highlight the color barriers that can separate us--and bring us together--especially under extraordinary pressure. As the town gets to know these individuals they find that they all must band together to fight the common terror associated with a horrible war. Spike Lee has assembled a first-rate cast of young African-American actors led by Derek Luke (Catch a Fire Antwone Fisher) as Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps the conflicted leader of the division whose confusion about his place in America drives his actions. Luke has emerged as one very promising actor and further cements his growing reputation with a complex portrayal of a black man in the midst of war. Michael Ealy as Sgt. Bishop Cummings captures all the bravado of a shoot-from-the-hip character out for himself using street smarts to survive a battle he doesn’t think he belongs in. As the reluctant radio operator Hector Negron Laz Alonso plays a Puerto Rican living in Harlem who finds himself sent to war with an all-black unit. Towering above all the rest though is Omar Benson Miller a dead ringer for Forest Whitaker who plays the “gentle giant” Sam Train the one who takes the boy under his wing. His relationship with the young man Angelo played beautifully by Matteo Sciabordi is what gives the film its heart and soul. Several name actors including John Turturro Joseph Gordon-Levitt Kerry Washington D.B. Sweeney and Robert John Burke have relatively brief screen time and there’s a very strange cameo early on from John Leguizamo that seems like it belongs in another film altogether. A host of fine Italian actors including Pierfrancesco Favino and Valentina Cervi add to the flavor and authenticity Lee is going for. Coming off his biggest box office hit ever Inside Man and his Emmy-winning documentary on the aftermath of Katrina When the Levees Broke Lee continues his streak with this very accomplished and humane WWII epic focusing on African Americans we don’t often see depicted in American war movies. Lee makes this point forcefully in the film’s present-day prologue where we meet one of the soldiers now an older man cynically commenting on the all-white cast of the 1962’s The Longest Day as he watches the movie on TV. There is no question Lee is a skilled and extremely talented filmmaker. The many battle sequences in the film are violent and expertly choreographed. Lee’s work with the large cast is also top-notch letting James McBride’s forceful script breathe with plenty of room for the human element missing in many films of this type. Although the picture running at 160 minutes could have benefited from some judicious editing (particularly in the opening and closing sequences) overall it’s a worthy effort from Spike further proof of his new maturity as a filmmaker at the peak of his talents.
"You ship 400 000 trained killers over to some foreign land better give them a war " Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) quips. "War is hell but peace? Peace is boring." Set in 1989 at Theodore Roosevelt Army Base just outside of Stuttgart West Germany Elwood like most of the men at the base are there out of military servitude: the army serves as a reasonable alternative to a prison sentence. Elwood occupies his time by selling products like Mop'N'Glo on the black market and cooking heroin for the base's head of Military Police Sgt. Saad (Sheik Mahumd-Bey). But when Elwood literally stumbles on about $5 million worth of weapons he thinks he can finally retire--until a new base sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn) sets his sights on cleaning up the base. Elwood gets back at Lee by sleeping with his daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) but Lee has more sinister plans for the battalion secretary. Based on the 1993 novel by Robert E. O'Connor Buffalo Soldiers graphically illustrates rampant drug use and criminal activities that the author describes as a bad patch in the Army's history in the late 1980s. Although the film's depiction of events has been called into question its explicit scenes including one in which some soldiers take a hit of smack and drive their tank over some gas pumps and fry two officers in the process are harshly persuasive. Buffalo Soldiers is a haunting look at a military that is at war--with itself.
Phoenix has churned up scores of strong performances in the past including roles in To Die For The Yards and Gladiator--which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Roman emperor Commodus. With the role of Elwood in Buffalo Soldiers he once again gets to show off his remarkable range. Phoenix shows conviction as a bureaucratic con artist by day and drug dealer by night. But just when you think his character has no scruples he begins to care about his sniveling roommate sticking up for him when base bullies harass him and cleaning up his cuts when he gets beaten up. And even though he starts off dating Robyn to piss off her father his motives change once he gets to know her. Phoenix's Elwood plays his cards close to his chest; we can never tell if he really wants to change for the better or just wants Robyn to believe that he does. There is something we like about him either way as does Robyn. Paquin's Robyn is young rebellious and incredibly sharp. She has grown up on a military base and has become an expert at figuring people out which makes her a perfect match for Elwood. Does she change this antihero for the better? You will have to see the movie to find out.
Miramax Films acquired Buffalo Soldiers at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10 2001--the day before the terrorist attacks radically changed public opinion on the American military's role. With the tagline "Steal All You Can Steal " the film was bound to set off sparks. Fearing moviegoers would view the film's release as inappropriate the studio shelved it until now. Helmed by Australian director Gregor Jordan Buffalo Soldiers does not paint a pretty portrait of the U.S. Army; there is plenty of gritty imagery of soldiers shooting up heroin juxtaposed against familiar slogans like "Be All That You Can Be." Whether you believe Jordan's take on the subject matter to be accurate or not the film is not as anti-military as it has been made out to be. Jordan's two extreme perspectives effectively illustrate the connection O'Connor makes in his novel between the century-old Buffalo Soldiers a term used to describe the freed slaves employed by the Union Army to wipe out the native population in the 1800s and the movie's uniformed dregs stationed in West Germany at the fringe of the Cold War era: Neither group had anything to gain from fighting. In the film Elwood and company have an even harder time dealing with the boredom that comes from being idled by peace thus rekindling their delinquent tendencies. The U.S. Army in Buffalo Soldiers is in effect representative of a society or a subculture set in a greedy decade that operates under its own rules and values and Jordan's screenplay gets this point across without ever preaching to the audience.