Spike Lee examines Vietnam War trauma in ‘Da 5 Bloods’

Spike Lee's new film "Da 5 Bloods" follows Vietnam veterans returning to the country in search of their lost treasure.

Spike Lee's new film "Da 5 Bloods" follows Vietnam veterans returning to the country in search of their lost treasure.

David Lee/Netflix/ Contributed photo / David Lee/Netflix

The reel world of moviemaker Spike Lee knows no boundaries. For more than 35 years, he has shaped every type of film into a comment on its time and the conditions of our world. No matter the prompt, Lee uses his stories to capture the essence of human behavior and show us the lasting impact that behavior can create.

The director’s latest movie - “Da 5 Bloods” - reminds us why watching his films so completely satisfies. Lee transforms what could have been an interesting, if potentially synthetic, tale of veterans returning to a scene of battle into a meaningful study on the impact of war. And he helps us absorb the lasting scars from unfinished business on a battlefield in Vietnam that haunt the lives of Black men once trapped in deadly confrontation.

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"Da 5 Bloods"

Content: Strong. The story of men returning to a scene of battle during the Vietnam conflict prompts an essential examination of the impact of war on black soldiers.

Entertainment: Strong. While the film is filled with meaning, its thorough look at its characters makes us want to get to know these men and everything they face.

Message: Strong. Lee again demonstrates an amazing ability to weave a strong message for today through a narrative from history.

Relevance: Strong. Any opportunity to learn more about what people experience, and why, is essential as we search for ways to build bridges.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Strong. While this is not a film for the entire family, it can open positive conversation with older teenagers about issues faced in the 1960s and today.

At first, the reunion of these soldiers looks like a joy ride into the streets of present-day Ho Chi Minh City. They relax at their luxurious accommodations, reconnect as old friends and look forward to revisiting once-familiar locations in the countryside. With their tour guide, they find themselves fascinated by what has changed and what remains constant in the landscape, and with the people, each facing their own reactions to revisiting places they cannot forget. But soon we realize this is far from a pleasure trip; these veterans plan to retrieve a chest of gold bars they lost during a tragic encounter with the enemy more than 40 years before.

That set up gives Lee just what he needs to tell a story that can be true to itself as well as frame a message that is needed today. As he takes his veterans through the countryside, the director carefully layers the intensity of what they confront. Realizing, perhaps, that he has 2-1/2 hours to tell this story, he lets the camera linger on how these veterans absorb the place, then and now. As they begin to consider what it all means, Lee helps us thoroughly understand why those events of the past continue to haunt today. And, because he tells the story in such detail, with so much care, we can absorb the impact of a controversial war on all its victims, especially Black men on the front lines.

As a filmmaker, Lee helps us keep track of the various time periods he covers by using different visual techniques. He lets the opening moments glisten, for example, in widescreen digital video; in contrast, he relies on the 16mm film used by television news crews in the 1960s to recreate the flashbacks, while he studies the current challenges through a subdued, digital lens. The result is visually extraordinary as well as ideal for enabling us to absorb the power of the performances, highlighted by Delroy Lindo’s devastating account of a damaged soul searching for relief from the pain instilled more than 40 years before.

No matter what story Spike Lee films, he makes it essential for a moment. In this time of people trying to understand others, the director shows us how we must acknowledge the damage from history before we can move forward with hope. Only when we appreciate the journeys traveled can we help anyone take positive steps. Watch this movie.

“Da 5 Bloods” is Rated R for “strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language.” The film runs 2 hours, 34 minutes, and is available on Netflix.