“After you’ve been in a war you understand it never really ends, whether in your mind or in reality,” reflects Vietnamese tour guide Vinh (Johnny Nguyen) as he helps the eponymous Bloods of Spike Lee’s latest offering prepare for a shootout in a ruined Buddhist temple. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the motivations behind the making of Da 5 Bloods, and why it is such a powerful and pertinent film, especially in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This is not so much a war film, as it is a film about war. It delves deeply into the lasting effects a conflict can have on a country, as well as on the soldiers from both sides – psychologically and physically – and the way that acts of violence can remain and permeate in spite of the progress of time that many argue heals all wounds. A concept termed widely as “slow-violence”; that is to say, forms of violence that manifest themselves long after the shock and awe of the initial act. It is in the landmines that remain in the soil and kill innocent passersby; in the mistreatment of bụi đời – the mixed-race Amerasian children left behind in the wake of the Vietnam War; in the PTSD and survivor’s guilt suffered by the soldiers. All of which are represented here.
Above all, however, it is a film about recognising the sacrifices made by Black soldiers like Milton Olive, an 18-year-old soldier who was the first Black recipient of the Medal of Honour in the Vietnam War. Soldiers who, in the words of an enraged former soldier Paul: “fought an immoral war for rights [they] didn’t have.” Sacrifices that are majoritively absent from Hollywood’s previous depictions of the Vietnam War, despite African American soldiers comprising around 23% of American troops in Vietnam. Much like the protagonists, who travel to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen commander – as well as the fortune they buried – Lee seeks to ensure that these soldiers are remembered and their legacy lives on.
All of this is neatly wrapped up and depicted in a typically Spike Lee way. The director’s use of archive footage and imagery is as prevalent here as ever. The film is intercut with photographs of real soldiers, speeches by Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, and recreations of radio broadcasts from the time by Hanoi Hannah – excellently portrayed by Van Veronica Ngo. Taking this deeper is the excellent interlacing of flashbacks in which the elderly Vietnam vets play their younger selves with no use of de-ageing technology, as though the Bloods are forced to frequently relive the trauma of their past experiences. It is odd seeing Chadwick Boseman as squad leader Stormin’ Norman shouting orders at a pair of 68-year-olds, but it works wonderfully.
Moreover, the film quality also shifts during these moments, with the aspect ratio becoming more compressed and the film taking on a grainier quality. It’s a knowing homage to the likes of Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and First Blood; but these tropes are used in order to further assist the ultimate message of the film in a way that is fundamentally Lee. Anyone familiar with the director’s previous work, especially his last offering BlacKkKlansman, will find his approach instantly recognisable. In this regard, the film is a roaring success.
There are some moments where the film is lacking. At times the writing feels somewhat awkward, as characters deliver heavy-handed expository lines; however, this primarily occurs in the first act and as the film reaches its peak such misgivings are long forgotten. Similarly, at least two of the titular Bloods, Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), feel forgotten amidst the drama and tensions unfolding for the rest of the characters. Despite being well-acted, they never feel as though they truly come into their own.
Rather, the focus is very much on Otis (Clarke Peters) who spearheads the expedition and strives to remain the level-headed member of the group, and Paul (Delroy Lindo). Paul is perhaps the most fascinating character; a former soldier so disenfranchised by his country that he voted for Donald Trump. He is simultaneously wracked with PTSD and an overwhelming sense of betrayal, even by his own son (Jonathan Majors), who joins the group primarily to keep an eye on his father. Lindo is mesmerising in this role, delivering Shakespearean monologues that boil with intensity. Paul is an ultimately tragic figure, and sadly one that is not uncommon for soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.
Despite some minor shortcomings, Da 5 Bloods is an incredible genre-crossing work of film that depicts the Vietnam War, its legacy, and those affected by it in a way few films ever have. Spike Lee memorialises Black heroes, conveys rage and disenfranchisement, and delivers thoroughly gripping drama. Its power and importance cannot be understated.
Available on Netflix now.