Rated R for language and violence, both war and civilian. It's a pretty brutal movie and you are going to see some gore. It's not exploitative, although there was one time that I shouted an expletive because I never really got caught off guard. Fundamentally, it also is a movie about race relations again. Spike Lee never makes race an easy topic, so prepare to get into some pretty heavy stuff. A well-deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Spike Lee
I don't think it happens very often that I have that moment. Watching this movie, I had the epiphany that I was watching a masterpiece. Like, I had to Instagram Spike Lee and congratulate him afterwards. Sure, he'll never read that message or this article. But this is one of those moves that completely transcends. I love Spike to begin with. BlackKklansman was my favorite movie of the year. But there have been a lot of Viet Nam films that I have seen and I appreciate a lot of them. Da 5 Bloods may have achieved more in an hour-and-a-half than the other films have tried in all this time.
Part of it is slightly unfair. Da 5 Bloods has a slightly unique scenario, shy of the fact that it is paralleling that Simpsons episode with The Fighting Hellfish. So many movies have tried to discuss the lasting impact of the Vietnam War after the fact. I keep making mental connections between Da 5 Bloods and Born on the Fourth of July. The thing is...I didn't really like Born on the Fourth of July. Da 5 Bloods has an advantage in the sense that it talks about aging with the knowledge of what went over there coupled with the very specific racial dynamic that the Bloods dealt with both overseas and at home. Born on the Fourth of July had this really important message that it had to get out. It had a responsibility to talk about PTSD and generate sympathy for the American soldier. It put pretty boy Tom Cruise (I'm sorry, Mr. Cruise. You are very pretty and that's completely a compliment) and asked America to be moved by the effects of war. But Born on the Fourth of July was saddled with a responsibility and a driving goal that lost the idea of subtlety. There's a tipping point in that movie where I started on their team and ended on "Okay, I get it." Da 5 Bloods, however, uses the fact that we are fundamentally different people in this day of age to talk about the horrors of the Vietnam War, and that distance makes all of the difference.
(Note: I'm insanely distracted today, so I apologize for the disjointed nature of this whole thing.) Setting the film in 2020 does some really interesting things for the piece. While Lee sets a small percent of the movie during the Vietnam War, the majority of the film is about the aging GIs as they discover that trauma isn't one thing. Lee wisely doesn't make the story simply about a reunion in Viet Nam. That would be heavy handed. The story of finding Stormin' Norm's body and recovering the hidden gold gives the story a much needed external conflict that allows them to deal with the internal struggle that all of them carries. It's interesting to see how varied the trauma is. Delroy Lindo's Paul is probably the character who most stands out as the PTSD archetype. I hate using the word "archetype", because Lindo is sublime in this film and I agree that he should get the Oscar for his portrayal of Paul in the film. But Otis, Eddie, and Melvin all have their own ways of dealing, all of which lack a sense of perfection. They all have toxic elements in their lives. Otis has never really loved again, at least in the way that he did in Viet Nam. Eddie has the business acumen to accumulate wealth, but it was coupled with a toxic head space that forced him to squander his earnings. I'm not quite sure what Eddie's issue is, but Eddie just seems to be a hanger-on. These guys all are dealing with a lot of trauma, yet they are surprised to see their peers going through the same thing.
Spike Lee is the master of talking about the complexities of race. I just wrote about Do the Right Thing, one of my favorite films. There's a lot of comfortable films about racism. These are movies where there is clearly a good guy and clearly a bad guy. Lee doesn't like to do that because that's not what racism is. Racism is ugly and no one thinks that they are racist. Lee crafts this view of the Vietnam War, probably the most shockingly accurate atmosphere imaginable, where the war was again an exploitation of minorities in this country. Rather than painting the image of white men and Black men shoulder to shouder, Lee stresses the narrative that people of color were sent to the front lines and given the worst and most dangerous jobs. But like Do the Right Thing, our protagonists don't have clean answers. They aren't these perfect characters. Because white America isn't really represented in the film, nor should they be, the protagonists are representatives of America to the world around them as they hold onto their cultural identities. Lee even makes his most compelling character, Paul, a MAGA hat wearing Trump supporter. It doesn't make things boring. It makes things interesting. I mean, Paul's the psychopath of the group. I'm reading it the way that Lee has it and I totally agree. He's the character who is the wildcard of the group. But it doesn't make Paul completely unsympathetic. He has been the one who has been disillusioned since returning home to the states. He has this emotional baggage and he found comfort in his hate. It makes sense. Soldiers returning home from war were scorned by the left, regardless of the complex politics. The other members of the Bloods understood the overall message, but Paul felt alone. So when someone was willing to scoop him up and make him a token representative, he leapt at the chance. It makes his character fascinating.
Paul is the reason to watch this movie. We love Otis, but we watch Paul. There's a lot going on in the movie. I love that he's named Paul. There's this really rad scene where Paul is alone in the jungle and he's talking to God. He's really talking to himself with some of his non sequiturs, but it is Saul on the road to Damascus. The thing about Saul is that he really believed he was doing the right thing when he was still Saul. He had this cause that he stood by. It was when God opened up his eyes and he became Paul that he realized that his holy quest was actually sinful. Lee doesn't quite give us that 180 that the Bible did, but Paul's personality in the hole is one distant from the one before the hole. Lee allows the viewer to determine the divine intervention in that scene. Because Paul is bitten by a snake, a lot can be written off as simply the hallucinations accompanied with poisoning. But that change in his character is so powerful. He sees signs of the almighty all around him. He never renounces who he is. Desroches coming in with his MAGA hat, however, is a trophy of the loss of Paul. It hasn't been buried with him. Considering that death is such an overwhelming motif throughout the film, the donning of that cap carries significance.
Man, there's some Apocalypse Now references all over this movie. I mean, the title shot is in the film at a nightclub. I love that juxtaposition, balancing the glory of war to the fickleness of clubbing. But Lee also incorporates the Flight of the Valkyries over a casual boat trip. Similarly, Otis, bullet ridden, moans "Madness, madness". I don't know if Lee is paying homage to the film or criticizing it. Apocalypse Now is probably the best film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad is kind of a turd and Lee knows this. Apocalypse Now, like its source material, both condemns the invading whites while glorifying them at the same time. Both the movie and the book take time to criticize the white invaders, both treat the natives as a sense of "other." With Heart of Darkness, it treats the people of the Congo as animalistic. With Apocalpyse Now, it does the same with the Vietnamese. I can't imagine that Spike Lee would be the biggest advocate of Apocalypse Now, but he never outright attacks the film either. It's an odd take, but I can't ignore the allusions to the film throughout.
I'm sorry that I didn't have more to say about Da 5 Bloods. It honestly blew me away, but I'm crazy distracted right now and will bow out before I completely mess this up beyond recognition. This was a fantastic movie that completely blew me away. Lee presents a complex narrative of America both post-Vietnam and during the Trump administration. He presents another complex look at race and brotherhood, but does so through complex storytelling elements and gorgeous understanding of cinema regarding Vietnam. It's an excellent film.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.