Spike Lee's war epic is a contemporary take on the subject of Vietnam, deeply embedding black issues into its narrative while staying relevant to the present day.
The Vietnam War has been a sensitive subject matter that Hollywood has keenly exploited for artistic merit, especially during the late 1970s and into the ’80s through classics like The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and, of course, Apocalypse Now. Although interest in this period of US military action has diminished partly due to Western intervention in the Middle East, Spike Lee has now added his own rendition on the era with his new film Da 5 Bloods. An epic tale spanning 50 years, Lee’s latest sees the beloved director returning to familiar ground. While bringing a refreshing tone to this sub-genre of war film, Da 5 Bloods‘ themes resonate with recent global events to make for another solid contribution to Lee’s filmography.
The narrative unfolds over two distinct time periods, following a group of four African-American Vietnam veterans who dub themselves the ‘Bloods’. In the present day, the squad consisting of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned to their old battleground for a trip deep into the Vietnamese Jungle. Whilst looking to retrieve a cache of gold and the remains of their fallen leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the group are haunted by the memories of their time in the country. The film flashes back at certain points to their prior mission, and Norman’s unfortunate demise.
Essentially, Da 5 Bloods broadly comprises of two elements: an adventure that has the nostalgic spirit of long-time companions remembering their younger days, and a drama that laments the recollection of war and its long-lasting psychological impacts. This is fairly well-trodden territory, with Lee gleefully referencing Francis Ford Coppola’s classic at numerous points – whether visually through shots of helicopters shadowing over sunsets, or in the sounds of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ on a mild boat ride. What gives the film a unique edge over its predecessors is how Lee and editor Adam Gough weave in a range of archival footage, covering the civil rights movement in America, the physical effects of the war on the Vietnamese people, and speeches from activists like Angela Davis. It allows events to be more fully contextualised, exploring black heritage and the dilemmas faced by black American soldiers. This historical footage feels neither patronising nor self-important, and is very informative. There is also reference to Donald Trump which, for once, is justified within the context of the film.
On a technical level, Lee’s direction is impeccable. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel is exquisite, taking in the jungle’s serene beauty and its danger. During the flashbacks, the aspect ratio reduces to 4:3, mimicking the television footage of the era. This makes for a grippingly realistic experience during these sequences. Likewise, the choice to not de-age or use younger actors in these flashbacks (for the main four Bloods) is effective, highlighting how what we are seeing are memory images – that these men are still very much living in their traumatic pasts. The cast is terrific, with much credit going to the script (by Lee and Kevin Willmot, rewritten from a spec draft by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo) which is able to capture the genuine camaraderie within the group. There is a stand-out performance by Delroy Lindo as Paul, one of the most fascinating black characters in recent American cinema. Paul’s backstory and ongoing issues may sound cliché on paper, but Lindo adds layers that extend beyond the script to create a complex, compelling figure that commands almost every scene he is in.
That being said, Da 5 Bloods is not the magnum opus that, at times, it wishes to be. At 2-and-a-half hours, the runtime demands plenty from the audience and there are considerable drags at certain points during the first hour. Elsewhere, there are two moments of graphic violence that feel awkward and strangely spontaneous. An argument could justify these by saying that they are meant to convey the horror and atrocities of war and violence, a perfectly reasonable judgement. On the other hand, these moments undermine character arcs and, rather than eliciting emotion, they indulge in the immediate shock and disgust of gratuitous gore. Barely mentioned after the fact, the impact of these scenes is weakened.
These flaws are worthy of note, but do not take too much away from what is an excellent and important film. Da 5 Bloods takes a different angle to most Vietnam films and thoroughly explores it to create an entertaining and thoughtful experience, one that will hopefully spark conversations and research into this upsetting part of history.
Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 15.