Spike Lee's films have always been fraught with the potential for greatness and disaster, shuddering with a nervy wire-walking energy that makes them superb when they stay on the narrow space between ambition and execution and gives you a long time to watch the fall when they don't. But that, of course, is what makes them worth watching; for but one example, the only thing more shocking than the realization that there was a musical number in Malcolm X was the realization of how superbly it worked; Lee's films are rarely undeniably perfect, but they are always undeniably his.
So it is with Miracle at St. Anna, a bold, sprawling, messy epic of war and faith set behind enemy lines in 1944, as a group of four African-American soldiers are trapped far from their fellow troops in German-occupied Italy. There are moments here where the film does not work, where you can feel the sharp needle of disbelief or dislocation puncture the film mercilessly, and there are other moments that are not only willing but indeed eager to look at big, challenging, relevant issues of race and power, war and justice, faith and failure. These moments -- and there are many of them -- not only speak to Lee's unwavering skill and commitment as a filmmaker, but also to the singular nature of his talent and will. When Miracle at St. Anna falters, it's in the moments that seem like they could have been crafted by any other film maker; when Miracle at St. Anna succeeds, it's in the moments that could only have been crafted by Lee.