By John H. Foote
(****) Streaming on Netflix
It took two viewings of this new film from Spike Lee for me to truly understand the power, perhaps because as a white man I will never understand the black experience and what it was to be black and fighting the war in Vietnam. History has shown the black soldiers drew the worst assignments, which usually meant hacking through the dense jungles on search and destroy missions, often easy targets for the crafty Viet Cong.
Spike Lee’s new film leaps into the Oscar race with its streaming on Netflix and stands as one of Lee’s very best films. It was different than I expected, a rare experience of understanding the intense bonding between soldiers at war, a brotherhood formed that is never broken for the rest of their lives. Having never been to war, thank God, I did not understand that sense of family these men, strangers until meeting one another in war, truly had.
It has been quite some time since we have had a powerful film about the war in Vietnam, which became acceptable on film with Coming Home (1978), Hal Ashby’s heartbreaking narrative about the impact of war after the men return home, The Deer Hunter (1978) ,the hugely overrated film that is less about Vietnam and more about friendship and the greatest of them all Francis Ford Coppola’s surrealistic masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979). In the immediate years to follow, Vietnam became a comic book war on screen, fought by the likes of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone in his First Blood films, the story usually about men going back to bring home the soldiers left behind. It was America’s – and Hollywood’s – way of winning the war, the loss in Vietnam humiliating the powerful United States. When Oliver Stone, a decorated war veteran and Academy Award winning screenwriter directed Platoon (1986) based on his own experiences in the war, everything about that comic book mentality was obliterated. Suddenly the war was realistic again, terrifying and did great damage to the men who fought in it.
Following Platoon was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), an alarming study of how American men were trained to be killers and then sent into Vietnam to fight. Norman Jewison took a stab at Vietnam with In Country (1987) a noble effort that never found it audience. For Platoon, Stone won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, and three years later was back in Vietnam with Born on the Fourth of July (1989) based on the life of war veteran/ antiwar spokesman Ron Kovic, an all American kid who proudly went to war and returned forever paralyzed from the waist down. Portrayed brilliantly by Tom Cruise, the film won Stone his second Academy Award for Best Director, establishing him as the chronicler of the war. That same year Brain De Palma gave us Casualties of War (1989) based on a true story about a group of Marines who, enraged at the death of one of their own, take a young woman from her home in the night and use her for sex for the next few days before murdering her. One of the director’s greatest works, it was shunned by audiences who found the film overwhelming, but critics loved the film, especially the performance of Sean Penn.
Spike Lee has made a war film previous to Da Five Bloods, the perfectly awful The Miracle of St. Anna (2006), set during the Second World War and which I found insulting. As a filmmaker he has never stopped evolving, never ceased to grow, and Oscar attention should have come 30 years ago for his seething film about racism in New York, Do the Right Thing (1989). Very upset when his film was hailed by critics as a masterpiece but nearly completely ignored by the Academy, he did not endear himself to the fickle Academy with attacks of racism. In the years since that film, Lee has made movies deserving of Oscar attention, including the superb Malcolm X (1992), the powerful crime film Clockers (1995), the extraordinary documentary about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, When the Levees Broke (2006) – simply one of the greatest documentaries ever made in America – and two years ago the superb BlacKkKlansman (2018). With that last film he finally was recognized by the Academy and Directors Guild with nominations for Best Director and Best Picture from the Academy. On Oscar night he won his first Oscar for the screenplay to the film, BlacKkKlansman, bounding to the stage a very happy man.
His new film for Netflix, Da Five Bloods, is an anguished howl of pain about a group of black men who fought together in Vietnam, losing their leader and burying him in a field with a case of gold bars. Now years later, as they approach being senior citizens, they return to Vietnam to retrieve his body and the gold.
I think it is a safe assumption to state that Lee has changed the way we watch movies, bringing to light the black experience, making white audiences aware of the challenges still existing in America as a black individual. He once again digs deep into himself and his heritage to explore that theme in this superb new film,
The film is part The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and part Apocalypse Now as the men search for their dead friend and the coveted bars of gold, a quest that will have deadly consequences as they discover they are not alone in the search for the gold bars. Moving upriver from the city of Ho Chi Minh into the blistering hot interior of Vietnam, the men move through the country where once they fought a vicious battle for their lives. There is much humour in the film – we listen to old men banter about their youth, their body parts, sex, their time at war and what it is to grow old. Often the film veers off into a study of loyalty, honour, greed (hey there is gold at stake) and the depth of friendship, eventually becoming much more dramatic. In a way nothing much has changed for the men, as they are back in Vietnam once again on a rather dangerous mission, and though there are no bombs or bullets whizzing past them, there are treacherous double crosses, as greed rears its ugly face. In the dense green land there are still live landmines, left over from the war, which the men are acutely aware of, and some of their instinctual soldiering has never left them, though perhaps is numbed a bit.
Melvin (Isiah Whitlock), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clark Peters) and best of all in a stunning performance, the great Delroy Lindo is Paul. Lindo has always been a magnificent actor who just never got the break for that one great role. He was alarmingly intense in Clockers as a drug dealer and horrifying as a father raping his own daughter in The Cider House Rules (2000). Even in a small role in the splendid Get Shorty (1995) he stole every scene he was in, no small feat considering many of his scenes are with John Travolta doing the finest work of his career.
The men have gathered to search for the remains of their beloved leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who was killed years before in a firefight and buried in the wilderness along with a case of gold bars the men found. Seen in flashbacks, we understand Norman was a charismatic leader, a hero, fearless and we understand at once why the men loved him. That they refer to Norman as “our Martin and our Malcolm” says what they thought of him. They saw him as invincible, and his death grounded them at once, both shocking and bringing about a near lifelong grief.
The men search for the body and gold but learn they are not alone in their search and, given the worth of the bars, it becomes a very dangerous game.
While the entire cast is exceptional, Lindo as Paul is an astonishment. In many ways I would compare him to Captain Ahab in Melville’s exquisite “Moby Dick”, a slightly mad leader obsessed with what he knows he can never conquer. Is Paul still fighting the war? No, he knows it is over, but he has such regrets, and his mind is haunted with what he remembers doing and seeing. I was reminded of the great Harry Chapin song “Little Black Bummer” and thought Paul might have been the soldier in that song. He is violent, no question, unapologetic about having voted for Trump, almost daring his friends to call him on it, and clearly a conflicted man. Lindo captures the essence of a man in turmoil late in life, altered forever by events which took place in his youth. Once back where these traumatic events took place, he cannot help but become the eye of the storm. Hand the man an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he deserves it.
Boseman is equally superb as Norman, though we might wonder sometimes if his goodness and charisma is enhanced by memory, by what the men recall of him. This actor has proven time and time again he has real star quality and casting him in this key role was a smart move.
The flashback scenes are pure Spike Lee genius and rather innovative. Rather than cast lookalikes or use the expensive de-aging process Martin Scorsese used in The Irishman (2019), Lee places his older men as they are in the flashbacks, so they see Norman as he was, forever young, death having never changed him. The screen narrows, the colours alter, and we are back in the sixties watching these men fight that dirty little war. It is a bold yet refreshing move and captures the memories of the men collectively, leaving Norman as he was, young, heroic, forever.
Da Five Bloods is a landmark film, a dark work of art and easily among the contenders for the Academy Award as Best Picture so far. Oh I know, there is much to come, but this was a tremendously fine film. You might need to see it twice to let it sink in, to capture the essence, but trust me, it is a worthy journey.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.