Two dramatic films set against turbulent real-life backdrops make for provocative viewing this month.
Spike Lee is not the first name you’d think of to direct a World War Two drama, but “Miracle at St. Anna” is no ordinary wartime tale. The film is inspired by real-life events that James McBride incorporated into his novel of the same name. The movie isn’t easy to describe in just a few words, because it isn’t like any other war movie in recent memory. While it opens in the present day, the heart of the story takes place in 1944 in the Tuscany region of Italy, where the all-black Buffalo Soldiers division is under heavy fire. Four men manage to dodge the bullets. A private, played by Omar Benson Miller, hides in a barn and takes a frightened Italian boy into his care. His buddies join him as they seek shelter in a nearby village, where they soon discover that it’s difficult to know who can be trusted. Partisans roam the nearby hills and the threat of a Nazi attack looms large. The film is really a series of vignettes, showing the moral crises faced by soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war. There are scenes of heartbreak and horror as well as lighter moments, and the performances by Miller, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy and Laz Alonso are outstanding. “Miracle at St. Anna” illuminates a particular aspect of World War Two that Hollywood hasn’t explored until now.
James Woods gives an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance in Oliver Stone’s potent drama “Salvador,” set in the midst of war and tumult in El Salvador in 1980. The protagonist is photojournalist Rick Boyle, whose life is a mess, which is what inspires him to head to the Central American country with his pal Jim Belushi. But this is no place to relax, and before long, Boyle realizes that he can’t sit back and do nothing when people are being slaughtered. He has to find a way to keep the military at bay, so they don’t suspect his real sympathies, and make friends among the guerrillas, who want him to help tell their story to the world outside. Boyle also becomes deeply involved with a woman whom he feels bound to protect, as best he can. This is a potent, in-your-face, politically-charged movie that makes you feel as if you’re actually in the middle of the action. It propelled screenwriter Oliver Stone to the front ranks of filmmakers—and earned him an Oscar nomination for the screenplay he wrote with the real-life Rick Boyle. And it’s a movie you won’t easily erase from your memory.
Both of these movies draw on the best source of material any filmmaker could call upon: the drama of real life.