Spike Lee’s latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” is about a group of black Vietnam War veterans who travel back to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their fallen brother, and their secret stash of stolen gold.
“The American war is over,” one of the Bloods reminds the rest of the group, before a prank firecracker triggers their collective PTSD and throws the audience into a flashback of the Bloods fighting in the Vietnam War 45 years prior. Yet, little to no de-aging effects are done on the actors, creating a strange blurring of past and present that the audience gets to experience with the characters.
The film’s first half explores the idea of how the black soldiers merely traded in the senseless violence of the war for the equally senseless trauma that lingered after the war ended, while recognizing it as part of the generational trauma inherited from when the first slave ship arrived in America. America still has slaves—they just call them soldiers.
It contrasts the different time periods by depicting the war flashbacks in the style of Vietnam War-era news footage, and the present-day reunion of the Bloods on digital. The film’s first half jumps back and forth between the distinct time periods and modes of shooting, as if itself wrestling between past and present.
The second half of the film changes, for a third and final time, to a wider frame. It captures significantly a lot more of the Vietnam jungle that’s the setting of both past and present time periods, while letting any formal distinction between either bleed away. Suddenly, the film surrounds the characters and the audience in a jungle where enemies could be anywhere and the violence is chaotically ambivalent. (There’s an intense sequence with landmines, forgotten remnants of the war that continue to inflict fatal damage, that will keep you on the edge of your seat.)
“Da 5 Bloods” truly locks the audience into the displaced psyche of the characters—possibly the most immersive the Netflix platform can be at the moment. It will undoubtedly be compared to many Vietnam War films (the most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which the film directly references), but a fair contrast could be made to last year’s awards favorite, “1917,” which was critically lauded for the filmmakers staging the entire film in one continuous shot.
“Da 5 Bloods” offers no such continuity. It juggles a variety of tones, transitions back and forth between two time periods, and switches between multiple film aspect ratios, while more or less keeping the characters looking the same.
The film may be considered jarring or inconsistent, but it is that way to immerse you (at least more so than in a structurally polished narrative) in the headspace of these soldiers attempting to navigate their place in America, through a war they had no reason to be a part of.
“Da 5 Bloods” offers a real look at the soldiers of the war—people who are lost and displaced, whose voices have been silenced, people who are seething with anger, who want to take back for themselves. It passes no condemnation, for the film positions them as merely survivors.
It’s a necessary watch, if only for the fact that it isn’t one of those, as the film itself says, “Holly-weird films that tries to go back and win the war.” —CONTRIBUTED