Vietnam drama is both devastatingly on point and an overlong slog
Unlike certain tone-deaf PSAs, there are voices you need to hear from at a volcanic cultural moment like this. Enter Spike Lee, whose new film Da 5 Bloods debuts today on Netflix. It’s both devastatingly on point and an overlong slog.
If you never sit down for the whole thing, watch the first two and a half minutes. They are a chilling primer on the history of black Americans’ sickening treatment by their government. A Marvin Gaye-scored montage features Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and others on the insanity of the government sending black men to Vietnam while crushing their civil rights home. “We may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon,” Davis says. Lee doesn’t have to cut to footage of the White House’s current occupant (and what restraint, really, in not doing it) to make his point.
DA 5 BLOODS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Chadwick Boseman, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Running time: 154 min
This opening salvo links to right-this-moment events, like black National Guardsmen airing their dismay at being asked to fire at peaceful protesters outside the White House. But then, Spike’s been telling us the real deal his whole career, as he pointed out in a new short film, 3 Brothers, last week, showcasing the parallels between George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Radio Raheem of 1989’s Do The Right Thing.
Lee follows the gut-punch intro of Da 5 Bloods by two and a half more hours, including a full hour’s worth of cardboard dialogue and gratuitous shooting and yelling, reinforcing my belief that the vast majority of movies could be their best selves at a 90-minute run time. But let’s focus on the good, and sometimes the great, first.
We meet four of the five Bloods–a term black soldiers used for themselves in Vietnam, a pointed reference to the military considering them expendable–reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City. Otis (Clarke Peters) is the unofficial group leader; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) the likable doof; Eddie (Norm Lewis) the guy who got really rich; Paul (Delroy Lindo) the volatile one, who to his buddies’ great dismay has turned into a Trump supporter. The actors have great chemistry, and Jonathan Majors is also excellent as Paul’s adult son David, who shows up to keep a wary eye on him.
The four vets have hatched a plan to go back into the jungle to retrieve long-buried treasure–gold bars found on a crashed CIA plane–and the remains of their friend Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the fifth Blood and their eloquent combat leader. Lee makes the laudable choice to just have the older actors play themselves in war flashbacks, rather than enlisting other people or creepily de-aging them a la The Irishman.
The vets’ guide Vinh (Johnny Nguyen) warns that hiking into the jungle on their own is a bad idea. Of course it is. Lee unsubtly tips his hat to Apocalypse Now, including playing “Ride of the Valkyries” as their river boat embarks, and featuring an eventual descent into “madness….madness.”
Per Lee’s style, he peppers the film with blazing historical references, from a shout-out to a black man (Crispus Attucks) being the first to shed blood in the American Revolution to radio personality Hanoi Hannah (here played by Van Veronica Ngo) asking black G.I.s why the government was sending them Vietnam in disproportionately huge numbers. “Stormin’ Norman,” Boseman’s character, schools his comrades in black activism and anti-war rhetoric even as he proves himself to be a super-soldier. I mean, he’s Black Panther. What else could he be?
Lee also gives nuance to the supposed enemy in flashback; we hear Vietcong fighters giggling about poetry and girlfriends immediately before their slaughter. By the five. Our five.
Da 5 Bloods is at its best when it leans into Lee’s ever-simmering anger about racial injustice. Lindo has an Oscar-worthy monologue–in closeup facing the camera, a Lee hallmark–toward the end. Peters is also a standout, as the voice of reason who’s squashed his anger and trauma into world-weary sadness.
Some of this is so good. Which is why it’s extra frustrating when it becomes just another action-heavy buddy movie. But if this anti-war film seems at war with itself, that’s understandable: Lee picked up the project after it had been in development with Oliver Stone.At that point, they called it “The Last Tour” and was about a bunch of WHITE vets.
Still, it’s frustrating we don’t get more character development. For a film that aims to shine a light on black soldiers being treated like shit by their country, Da 5 Bloods is awfully incurious about the lives of Otis, Melvin, Eddie, and even Paul after the war. We understand Paul joined the MAGAs, but Lee never explains why. How did the Vietnam, and what they saw and did there, change the others? Are they involved with activism? Or are they, to different extents, reflexively self-protective like Paul? A flashback or two would have potentially been more useful than the overlong gunfights set languorously to the soulful sounds of longtime Lee composer Terence Blanchard. Or the modern-day scenes of bickering between the four, drawn out to sometimes ridiculous lengths, or a subplot involving three mine defusers (Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen).
I also want to warn people, as I wish someone had warned me, that Da 5 Bloods unflinchingly shows the atrocities of war, including film footage from famous Vietnam War images like the execution of Nguyen Van Lem and the screaming children fleeing a napalmed village, as well as grisly up-close photos from the My Lai massacre.
But then, we are at a moment when no one should be allowed to avert their eyes. And when Spike Lee says to look, you do it.