Review by Marc Leepson
It’s no coincidence that six songs from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, “What’s Going On,” including the anthem-like title tune, are part of the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s hard-hitting new Vietnam War-heavy Netflix movie, Da 5 Bloods. Not a coincidence, that is, because Lee’s film—like Gaye’s album—gives voice to African American Vietnam veterans in an artistically creative and brutally honest fashion.
Plus, on a literal level, there’s an awful lot going on in the movie.
At its heart, Da 5 Bloods is the story of four men who served together in the 1st Infantry Division meeting up in present-day Vietnam for one final mission—to try to find the missing remains of one of their buddies. Lee’s movie also deals with the war’s lasting impact on the veterans’ psyches. And this being Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods also contains a multi-layered history lesson about the French and American wars in Vietnam; about African Americans’ contributions to all of America’s wars; and about racist oppression of African Americans in the U.S.
The movie’s historical content focuses on the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. In doing so, Lee touches many bases, including Agent Orange, unexploded ordnance, the unreliability of the M-16, toe poppers, the inequality of the draft (especially for African Americans), Hanoi Hannah, My Lai, postwar communist re-education camps, Vietnam veterans’ unwelcome homecomings, PTSD, and Amerasian children.
The final element of the film is a Hollywood-like hunt for buried treasure—tens of millions of dollars in gold bullion the five men came across in the remnants of a downed C-130 during the war. They decided to bury the loot and come back when the war was over to dig it up.
The movie, which was shot on location in Vietnam and Thailand, gets off to a stunning start. Lee and co-scriptwriter Kevin Willmott bring the four surviving Bloods—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters of The Wire, Treme, et. al), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.)—together in a fancy hotel in bustling, technicolor Saigon, and then deftly fill in their backstories.
Exposition can be clunky. Not in Lee’s hands. The men’s stories flow out naturally as they meet up, drink up, and tell war and postwar stories (good and bad). And as they plan their dual quests: to find the gold and the remains of their revered squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman).
Lee chose his four lead actors wisely. All are veteran sixty-something performers who bring depth and meaning to their roles. Lindo’s character Paul has by far the worst case of PTSD of the four. Peters’ Otis seemingly is the best adjusted, a former medic who takes the lead setting up the mission. Eddie is the outwardly steady, successful one. Melvin is the fun-loving brother who provides some comic relief.
Just before the men get ready to go on their quest, they get a surprise visit from Paul’s estranged son, played earnestly and believably by Jonathan Majors. Heated discussion ensues about whether or not the young man should go with the old guys on the mission. He does—and becomes an integral part of the rest of the film.
Along the way we get flashbacks to the war that pass the verisimilitude test. Everything from the uniforms to the ordnance and the terrain looks, sounds, and feels real. Except for one thing: Spike Lee smashes war-film convention by having the four old men run around in the jungle as their young selves in the flashbacks. At first, it’s shocking. But, to Lee’s credit, within minutes you accept this choice and it works.
It didn’t hurt that the actors went through a week-long boot camp at several locations in Chiang Rai in far northern Thailand under the guidance of military technical advisers, former Navy SEALs Harry Humphries (who served in the Vietnam War) and Kevin Hunt. That included classroom work, live firing at a rifle range, and running through group combat action on the ground. The actors needed it, too, because Lee puts them through physical and emotional hell in the 1968 jungle scenes and on their new mission.
Which brings us to the second half of the film, which follows the four old vets and one young man trudging through remote jungles surreptitiously hunting for buried treasure. What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything.
Spike Lee long ago proved that he knows how to make a movie. And he and his cast and crew have done a sterling job with the script, the cinematography, sets, costumes, and every other aspect of the film. Lee also cleverly includes homages to Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Apocalypse Now, John Huston’s classic 1948 noire western The Treasure of Sierra Madre (“Badges…. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”), and gives nods to David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai and Coppola’s The Godfather.
The plot gets a tad too twisty in places, and the cameras linger too long, for my taste, on hyper-realistic blood and guts. And the movie gets a bit too talky near the end.
Nevertheless, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods succeeds on almost every other level—especially in conveying the madness and horror of war, and the immutable fact that, as one character says, “After you’ve been in a war, you know it never ends.”