Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DA 5 BLOODS
Rated R, 154 minutes
Directed by: Spike Lee
After films like APOCALYPSE NOW, PLATOON and FULL METAL JACKET have dominated the discourse, director Spike Lee finally has his Vietnam movie. And what a worthy conversation it opens up. DA 5 BLOODS revolves around four Black Vietnam vets returning to a place of trauma mentally and physically in order to reclaim their dignity and some golden reparations. Though this deeply-affecting, soul-searing drama runs a smidge long, and finds itself in some well-traversed territory within the narrative, its hearty thematic resonance far outweighs the blights.
The plot is fairly lean, though the justification for the elongated runtime is found in the metaphorical facets of this cinematic gem and Lee’s perfect predilection for exploring every possible path to serve his sentiments. Four best friends/ ex-soldiers, whose relationship was forged by war, return to Vietnam (a country which is, like them, scarred by devastation and loss) under the pretense of finding their buddy Norman’s (Chadwick Boseman) remains and bringing them back to the States for proper burial. Covertly, they’re also looking for a slew of gold bars they hid deep in the jungle during wartime. Their plan is to set up a corporation through financial manager Desroche (Jean Reno, of course) to turn the treasure into liquidity, setting them all up for life.
These men are all haunted by ghosts in their past. Paul’s (Delroy Lindo, whose high-caliber performance is award worthy) demons have slowly evolved in the years since the Vietnam War, causing him to carry a burden that’s driven him slightly mad. His son David (Jonathan Majors), who ambushes him at their hotel, is carrying some heavy emotional weight of his own and hopes this trip will bring his father and their relationship some much needed peace. Otis (Clarke Peters) left his lady love Tien (Le Y Lan) behind after the war ended, and, as he learns, a secret love child: Michon (Sandy Huong Pham), who represents the unconditional love, hope and redemption that relationship renewal can bring. Eddie (Norm Lewis), who’s the group’s thoughtful caretaker, is hoping this trip will add clarity to his messy life, plagued by divorces, career problems and financial losses. For Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), this journey is leading him towards a courageous act – one based on real life events. It’s an almost innocuous story beat that does double duty, giving his character an arc and giving a real life hero his time in the spotlight.
Lee, along with fellow screenwriters Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott, sets up the context for these characters brilliantly, showing the historical backdrop of the era through news footage and interview clips with prominent figures. Throughout the story, they contrast and compare the black soldiers, forced to fight a war abroad when their own civil rights battle was raging at home, with the Vietnamese people, who have been disenfranchised and marginalized. They explore how both groups’ anger and resentment has manifested throughout the years. Complexities are addressed eloquently, without being forcibly contrived, nor taking on a preachy tone. That said, it does tend to fall back on convenience during a few sequences. The guys are skilled soldiers and quick thinkers – until they’re not. There are only so many times the excuse of “they’re rusty” can be rationalized. Dire, intense situations are escalated by ridiculous shenanigans. Plus, almost everything involving the trio of charity workers – played by Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen – is clunky. The actors are great, but their material doesn’t live up to their talents.
Sound design plays a crucial element in the picture, providing a soundscape for the ensuing drama. Narrative motifs reverberate in the backdrops of the Vietnamese nightlife and floating markets, as well as in the jungle’s recesses. The ominous, high-pitched hissing trill of cicadas – a creature that emerges from the underground every handful of years – echoes the men’s demons bubbling up from beneath the surface.
Aesthetically, Lee adds complementary artistry to the written framework. He plays around with aspect ratios to delineate jumps back and forth on the timeline. 2:35 letterbox suits the mood of their jovial reunion, the Academy ratio during flashbacks fits with the claustrophobia of that era, and the 16 x 9 widening of the frame once they embark on their adventure places emphasis on the epic quality of their quest. Eschewing de-aging effects for the most part (with the exception of one photo) augments the narrative’s sentimental, nostalgic undertones. Flashbacks don’t involve younger versions of themselves. Rather, they’re portrayed as their current age in those memories, making their nostalgia trip feel ever more mindful. Newton Thomas Siegel’s cinematography is breathtaking and disarming, capturing the tactile nature of these locations. Also, Lee’s keen ability to interweave music with story is unparalleled. He harnesses the powerful poignancy of Marvin Gaye’s music on the soundtrack, in addition to Terence Blanchard’s melancholic score.
DA 5 BLOODS is layered filmmaking, destined to deepen over time upon each viewing. With its commentary on the restorative power of confronting lingering anguish, the picture’s optimism is something we could all use as a compass pointing us towards hope.
DA 5 BLOODS will be available for streaming on Netflix on June 12.