September 23, 2008
San Jose CA — Camera 12
USA / Italy
English / German / Italian
160 Minutes — September 26, 2008
Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller / War
Spike Lee [Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; She's Gotta Have It; School Daze; Do The Right Thing; Mo' Better Blues; Jungle Fever; Malcolm X; Crooklyn; Girl 6; Get On The Bus; 4 Little Girls; He Got Game; Inside Man; When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts]
World War II Has Its Heroes And Its Miracles
This mess of a film was good for the first ten of its excruciatingly long 160-minute running time. Then it went downhill fast. And rather than redeem itself with the second half of its modern-day bookend, it just grew more preposterous, more preachy, more loud, and worst of all, more disjointed. It’s like ten films in one, none of which is related to any of the other nine. Comedy? History lesson? Romance? Film about honor? Is it about a long-held grudge? American Imperialism? 1940s lunch counter politics? I have no idea. But none of these different ideas are close to being clearly depicted on the screen. To say this film is disappointing is far too weak an analysis of its failures.
I need to preface a couple of things. You’ll see by the list of films of Lee’s that I’ve seen that I am a loyal and rabid fan of his. Malcolm X was an almost completely successful sweeping epic that captured 40 years of American history. Do The Right Thing expertly captured New York City race relations in 1989. His documentaries, 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke are proof that he can master the non-fiction realm as well. I didn’t mind School Daze or She’s Gotta Have It. Inside Man showed that he could do big budget as well as small. Crooklyn didn’t work for me so much. But Jungle Fever and it’s portrayal of both taboo love and Sam Jackson and Halle Berry as crackheads was pretty spectacular.
So I come from a position of wanting Lee to succeed, even when he plays outside his comfort zone in this case by trying to construct a film in three languages, with modern and 1940s elements, and bombastic war movie special effects. You want to give him props for trying. But then it gets worse and worse.
A gray-haired black man is watching a John Wayne WWII film on his television and says to no one in particular, “We fought for this country, too.” That’s how the film starts and it is typical Spike Lee. It’s almost like you have to go into this film never having read, heard, or seen any depictions of the African American experience in the 20th century. Of course black men fought in World War II (and every other war afterward), but would a man watching a late-night movie alone actually talk back to the screen? When he listens to old Benny Goodman records, does he say “We made music too”. Yes, I understand that portrayals of the brave black fighting men of the war are few and far between, but he starts the film by treating the audience as idiots.
The man works in a post office (which is confusing because during the war scenes there’s a guy named “Stamps”) and he goes through his assigned window tasks with little happiness or human interaction. A customer with an accent asks to mail something, the worker pulls out a German pistol, shoots the man point blank in front of horrified witnesses and then calmly closes his window and awaits arrest.
Enter John Turturro as a cop and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cub reporter. They will have a conversation scene shot as only Lee can, with fast-moving circling camera angles. A search of the man’s apartment turns up the head of a statue and we know it’s important because the cynical academic expert is rendered speechless when the head is unwrapped in front of him. We are hammered on the head over and over while watching this film. We get it: it’s a priceless artifact that was in a shopping bag in this guy’s closet. We will never see Turturro again and Levitt won’t return for more than two hours. A newspaper story ends up in Rome on the desk of John Leguizamo, who here plays some sort of Nazi-art collector who has a girlfriend who can’t get enough loving from him and before he can read the story he is jumped on by his hottie who causes the newspaper to fly out the window onto the table of a man enjoying a coffee at a street cafe. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, just wait 45 seconds because that’s how long it takes this man to stand up, read the article, and then–I’m not joking here–be so shocked by it that he pours his cup of coffee out in extra-slow-motion followed by the cup and then the saucer smashing on the cobblestone. Please re-read that scene. Man attacked by girlfriend throws paper out of window it lands on the one guy in all of Italy who knows the story of the statue, he stands up, spills his coffee, breaks the cup, and runs out of frame. What in the world is going on here?
We then flashback to the “Buffalo Soldiers” platoon as they bumble their way across a field. To say that they aren’t a tip-top fighting corps is an understatement. We see the same statue in a bag attached to an overweight, and seemingly borderline-retarded soldier named “Train”. But he’s the least of their problems. There are sobbing soldiers, loud soldiers, absent-minded soldiers–this is the gang that can’t shoot straight. They are being sent to cross a river in a suicide mission drawn up by their racist superior. (There are only a handful of white Americans in the film and just about all of them are virulent racists).
Fans of the late, great WIRE on HBO will want to know that not only is Omar Back! but Omar Scared! and then Omar Dead!
This scene has all of the problems of the film in one place. 1) the music is appallingly loud. Not just a bit loud, but loud enough to not be able to hear what the characters are saying; It swells up for no reason as if the composer had no idea what scene he was writing for. This happens more than I’d like in all Spike Lee films, but in this case it took me right out of what was happening. It’s loud, then soft, with no corresponding reason depicted on the screen. 2) The man in charge of them is played by Detective Shane on The Shield, so we know he’ll be an incredible racist who will endanger his men, not believe they could succeed, and then court-marshal them on a trumped up charge. 3) Limbs are blown off and mortars explode in bloody slow-motion as if Lee is saying “look what I can do with a big budget and military advisers.” 4) But most artificially, is the fact that a loudspeaker truck is moved into position and we cut to a radio studio where an attractive, blonde German woman begins her propaganda war. Instead of Tokyo Rose, we get Axis Sally. I have no doubt that this was part of Germany’s strategy to have troops second-guess themselves. But it’s not that she’s speaking, it’s what she’s saying. She begins to give the soldiers (and viewers) a lesson in the African-American assimilation experience. She brings up lunch counters and job opportunities. She says that America will never treat black people equally, she encourages them to put down their weapons and change teams over to Germany. As if no one knew of the Final Solution or Hitler’s views on non-white people. She then switches to speaking more sexually–if you put down your weapons, German women will worship you because deep down they all want to sleep with a strong, black man. Not to mention, we have fried chicken and biscuits just like momma used to make. The words she says are absolutely ridiculous.
Some of the men succeed in crossing the river, radio back to base where the superior assumes that they’re mistaken or are lying, and orders an artillery strike on their very position, killing several of his own men. The ones that make it do so by sheer luck.
At an abandoned farm house they come into contact with an Italian boy who is injured and who may have special mystical powers. The big soldier says that the boy is the first white person he’s ever touched. The Italian boy calls him “Chocolate Giant” in Italian. They end up communicating with taps on each other’s shoulders. The Chocolate Giant, Train, is played in what appears to be an homage to Lenny from Of Mice And Men. The boy won’t let anyone else carry him, Train doesn’t let any harm come to him, and whoever stays close by the child somehow stays out of harm’s way.
The small group bumbles their way to an Italian village where they’re told they’re surrounded by the German army by the one person in the village fluent in English (she claims to have been a nanny) who also happens to be the one model-quality female for miles. Both leaders have their eyes on her, one is tacky and forward, the other is polite and respectful. Guess which one she sleeps with first.
Most will die, there will be honor and betrayal. The movie is all over the place. It’s the kind of film where one soldier says to the other “It’s a SNAFU–situation normal all fucked up.” So he says the acronym and then explains the acronym thereby setting aside the point of an acronym. Lee wants to give us a lesson at every turn, not a story. The woman will take off her shirt at the clothesline, pause as she sees the polite soldier is watching, taunt him with a “haven’t you seen a naked woman before?”, and then change her mind and bang the more aggressive soldier. But that’s not all. The guy comes out of the house pulling up his pants, the woman comes out wearing his helmet, smoking a cigarette, and holding his rifle. Then the two men have a fight over her honor. Yikes.
But wait, there’s more. An entire church full of people is led to a courtyard and told they have one minute to turn over an Italian freedom fighter, even though he’s not there. The priest begs the men to kill him and let the others go. He begins to lead his congregation in prayer. When it looks like the Germans are about to open fire, they hold a pistol up to the priests head. But before they kill him, he has time for a quick prayer about forgiveness which ends exactly when the slow motion bullet goes through his brain. Every character has time for a death-bed declaration or another story about racism or the futility of war.
Everything is obvious. The good guys, the bad guys, the good women, the bad women. Who’s a good soldier, who’s a racist, who’s a caring German, who’s a turncoat Italian.
There is at least one striking and perfect scene in the 160-minute running time. There is a flashback to a time before the soldiers are shipped out from America which takes place in the south. The men want ice cream and stop at a lunch counter where German prisoners are being fed lunch on their way to prison. The cracker owner threatens them with a gun and tells them to go around back if they want any food. The soldiers point out that the Germans are served inside and they’re the enemy. The racist says to his son “That’s how they need to be treated” or something. The soldiers drive away pissed. This incident is one of many that I’ve read about up through the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60s where soldiers who are literally on their way to die for their country can’t even get a meal in the south. This is one instance of historical instruction that I’m glad Lee handled. Even though the owner is just this side of a characature, the scene rings true. As does a wordless scene when the jeep pulls a U-turn, heads back into the town, and the soldiers come charging in–rifles aimed–and demand their ice cream. The man can’t serve them quickly enough. We cut back to Italy and the four surviving men and the child are staring at the camera for a long, long time with a look of disgust on their faces as if they’re collectively remembering the ice cream incident at exactly the same time.
The shot is framed as if it were a snapshot of the common black soldier experience in WWII Europe. That experience, rather than just being shown to us by Lee, is then unfortunately hammered down on us when a character has to explain how torn up he is about fighting for a country in which he can’t even vote, while experiencing Europe where he feels more welcome than he does in his own country. The scene ends with the men moving out of frame one at a time. It’s pretty striking.
We know we’ll see the man who spilled the coffee, we know we have to be book-ended back to NYC in the 1980s to see what happens to our hero. But what we don’t expect, and what has no real purpose that I can tell, is a meeting on a Bahama beach. “Where Am I?” the character asks, seeming to forget that he just got off a plane whose ticket probably had the destination on it. “Someone wants to meet you.”
I want to commend Lee for trying such a sweeping story, with flashbacks, history, and three languages. But it fails on just about every level. A complete disappointment.
For a much better take on soldiers fighting and dying for a country that doesn’t think of them as equals, please see DAYS OF GLORY.
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNATags: 3.6, Action, Crime, Drama, John Turturro, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Spike Lee, Thriller, War