Spike Lee doesn’t get enough credit for being a movie nerd. And not just a movie nerd, but an old movie nerd. You just know that TCM is his most-watched channel. Spike is a social realist, but I have never felt that he was a cinematic naturalist; he often goes big, stagey, talky. He’s not afraid to throw a speech straight out of Capra (if Capra was an angry black man straight out of Bed-Stuy) into his films. Miracle at St. Anna should be the movie that really reminds people that Spike is a movie guy, as he’s made a really movie movie, one that, while it adheres to the post-Saving Private Ryan action aesthetics, actually has its heart in black and white Hollywood films from the 30s and 40s and Italian Neorealism.

If only the movie was better. Lee is tackling a great subject here – the Buffalo Soldiers in WWII (as well as going back to his charmingly New Yorkian interests in the intersections between Italians and blacks) – but he’s got a thin story that he stretches too far. Miracle at St. Anna is a fairly standard (but interesting, with a decidedly non-hackneyed setting) WWII story wrapped in a murder mystery with a garnish of racial treatise thrown in for good measure. Spike, reacting to Clint Eastwood’s lily-white beachs of Iwo Jima, wants to make an epic movie about the black experience in the Good War, but he doesn’t have the ammunition here. He might have been better off just making a really great WWII movie that happened to be about black soldiers.

The film clocks in at close to three hours, an almost numbing running time that Lee doesn’t quite earn. He could have cut a half hour out of the film, or extended it by a half hour to make a killer HBO miniseries, but at this length it’s unwieldy, especially for the small, personal dramas playing out. A squad of black soldiers, lost behind enemy lines in Italy, end up in possession of a strange, possibly holy boy. Holed up in a mountain village that has been under siege for three years, they finally get in touch with headquarters and their over the top evil white commanding officer demands that they capture a German, no matter how insane that mission might be. While in town the soldiers get involved with Italian partisans; there’s also a statue head that is very important in the murder mystery framing device but almost completely inconsequential in the film.

Any of these elements could have been picked out to make a great film. And Spike comes tantalizingly close to making that great film even with the amount of overload and stuffing he has going on. Even overlong, Miracle at St. Anna could have been great if Spike hadn’t made a couple of his trademark odd choices, choices that always seem to every so slightly deflate his own films. In this film it’s the ending that kills it, a grotesquely mawkish finale that would be out of place in a film shown to Sunday school classes, and which includes a truly bizarre speech by a brand new, out of left field character on the out of left field subject of safety. That’s part of the inherent weirdness of Spike’s movies that keep them from being naturalist. He has something to say, so he just has a character SAY it, instead of working it into the movie itself.

Some of his casting also works against him, specifically the choice of Omar Benson Miller as Train, the lumbering, dim-witted but good natured soldier who ends up being at the center of the story about the young holy boy. Miller can’t get across the complexities of Train (or his accent) and so the character becomes a caricature, a one-dimensional being whose ‘Oh Lawd!’ proselytizing and dumbness might have raised Spike’s ire in a movie from a white director. Thankfully, Miller is offset by other performances that range from the good – Derek Luke  as the upright squad leader Stamps alternates between moments of quiet strength and scenes where he seems unable to get his mouth around the dialogue – to the terrific – Laz Alonso is simply terrific as Negron, the squad’s Italian speaker and the killer in the unneeded future murder mystery and Michael Ealy plays the squad pussy hound with a strikingly amorphous style (I wasn’t sure if Ealy was giving a good performance until I realized how well he was modulating the skeezy and noble sides of his character; at first it read like thespian indecision). The lovely Valentina Cervi brings a lot of nuance to her part as the beautiful village girl who becomes the center of the squad’s attention, and she’s assisted by a passle of wonderfully real looking Italian extras. They don’t seem to be actors, just village folks who wandered into the shot. More trouble is Matteo Sciabordi as the holy boy – he’s too goofy for me to take him seriously.

The holy boy story, which is supposed to give the film its emotional heft, never took off for me. It felt like transmissions from another film; more interesting was the story about the partisans and a traitor in their midst, and how they intersect with the squad. The film takes what seems like a lifetime to get to the titular St. Anna, where a huge massacre happened as the Nazis searched in vain for resistance leader The Butterfly, played by Donatello winner Pierfrancesco Favino. There’s a tension here as the black soldiers begin settling into a world where their skin color doesn’t matter the way it does back home, and into a world where all the men are dead or in the woods fighting the Nazis, only to have the partisans come back into town with a lot of problems on their hands. Here Spike captures the anarchy of front line life as the Buffalo Soldiers are forced into positions of authority for which they were never prepared and as it’s hinted that maybe there’s friction between these two groups. That never really comes to anything (except for the traitor story, which feeds into the pointless murder mystery), but Spike’s direct style of speechifying works well in the mouths of existentially tortured Italians.

Less successful here is Spike’s political statements. He has a scene where a Nazi all but says ‘We’re just like the Bush administration!,’ which had even a pinko like me rolling my eyes. And instead of trusting us to understand that we’re watching a movie about segregated black soldiers in a time before the Civil Rights Movement shifted the national racial paradigm, he hammers the point home in a speechtastic ‘discussion’ and then really nails it in with a flashback to the soldiers’ tribulations as blacks in Louisiana during basic training. Again Spike seems all to willing to show as well as tell and tell. And in case we’re not convinced of how hard the Buffalo Soldiers have it, Spike makes their commanding officer, played by The Shield‘s Walton Goggins, into a blowhard moron racist who doesn’t even resemble a human being. I’ve talked to actors about finding a way into even the most despicable role, where they have to discover something in the character they can understand and can use to explain the behavior – I’d be interested in hearing if Goggins could find anything of the sort in his despicable Army dude.

These complaints obscure the fact that when Miracle at St. Anna works it works like fucking gangbusters. The massacre scene is breathtaking in beauty and horror; many of the scenes of the soldiers living in the village, including a dance at the local church, are wonderful. The opening action sequence, a botched and bloody river crossing, is electrifying, chilling and – again – beautiful (the great Matthew Libatique’s camera lingers on the faces of the dead like The Grim Reaper’s own portrait photography, a WWII version of the stately and morbid Civil War battlefield casualty pictures. I hate talking about Libatique’s often astonishing work in a paranthesis like this), and the final action scene, a close-quarters battle in the ancient staircases and alleys of the village, is exciting, real and heartbreaking (Spike Lee can do action, folks. Take that back to your superhero movie score cards. I’d say he does it better than Jon Favreau, in fact). Even the stuff I don’t like, such as the holy boy story, has moments that are sublime. Forget all the sound and fury and controversy he causes when he’s not making a film – Spike Lee is just a great, gifted director. And while Miracle at St. Anna doesn’t quite reach the heights I wanted it to reach, it’s still a fine movie and a fascinating near miss. Even a Spike Lee film as imperfect as this one is more deserving of your attention than 90 percent of what’s out there.

7.5 out of 10