For over 30 years, Spike Lee has been more on top of what’s going on in America than most of us, and that continues with arguably his most timely and timeless film since “Do the Right Thing.”
The writer/director’s latest joint is “Da 5 Bloods,” which tackles the Vietnam War and the effects it has on veterans in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen before, combining his sharp, critical writing with a brilliant eye of direction that puts the viewer right back in the jungle.
It’s impossible for anyone who has not served in a war to really understand what it’s like and how those experiences stay with you and affect the rest of your life. In “Da 5 Bloods,” we see just how a tour from 45 years ago is still impacting these vets’ lives as they return to the country to complete some unfinished business.
The power of this story comes not from the great screenplay and directing but from how nearly every character shows that war is never really over. Combining that with some brutal imagery depicting the horrors of war that will never leave my mind, Lee is not afraid to confront the problems and force us to confront them in ourselves.
Returning to Vietnam for the first time since the war, four African American vets, Paul (played by Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) have one more mission to complete.
The four friends are heading into the jungle to search for the remains of their fallen Squad Leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and a priceless treasure of gold they buried there after a deadly battle.
Joined by Paul’s concerned son (Jonathan Majors), the remaining “5 Bloods” must carry their pasts and the lasting scars of the war with them as they battle the forces of man and nature in order to find peace at last.
What immediately strikes the viewer is Lee’s choices for how the film is going to look. Opening with archival footage and photographs from the war, the first modern-day scenes with the foursome back in Vietnam is filmed in a crystal clear widescreen. But as the movie flashes back to the war, the aspect ratio changes to a grainy 16 mm fullscreen, making it look like actual footage from the war itself.
Not only does this make absolutely clear which scenes are set in which time period, but it helps the viewer get into the minds of these four guys. Because nearly every flashback scene is kicked off by an event triggering one of the vet’s PTSD, forcing them back to those days.
None of this would work without all the actors giving phenomenal performances. From the moment they meet up in Saigon, you can feel the comradery and connection they have, despite their personal and philosophical differences. This is most evident in Paul, who Lindo plays in possibly the best performance of the year so far. As the one who has suffered the most and carries the most hate, his journey through the film is the most heartbreaking and effective.
But everyone in the film who represents the larger peoples in play shows just how true it is that the war never really leaves you. From the disabled Vietnamese man who sets off fireworks to trigger the vets’ PTSD because they wouldn’t give him money to the French businessman and Vietnamese gang trying to steal the gold for themselves, they’re all fighting the same war 50 years later.
While these conversations and depictions of what the war did are important, Lee takes it all a step further with graphic images of war that you can’t escape. While the fictionalized action scenes are gruesome themselves, it’s his choice to show the real documentary footage and photographs that make it all the more real and all the more terrifying.
Although not planned to coincide with the current political discourse, “Da 5 Bloods” is a perfect companion piece to the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing protests. Whether you’re a person of color or not, whether you’re a veteran or not, whether you’re American or not, I hope this movie will affect everyone in some way, even if it’s a difficult way you didn’t expect.