Spike Lee takes on Vietnam, Vietman movies, and the ongoing war against racism in an epic modern war movie. Four war friends return to Vietnam to find the body of their messianic friend. They also want the large stash of gold also hidden somewhere in country. With a shady benefactor and some local resistance, they set out to reclaim what was taken from them.
Most strikingly, this is a film that showcases fabulous performances, driven by a cast of black actors who would typically serve supporting roles. Delroy Lindo commands every scene he is in as the deeply injured Paul. His fear and anger betray a survivor’s guilt that is a palpable driving force behind his erratic actions. Jonathan Majors follows his nuanced performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco with another withdrawn powerhouse. Clarke Peters brings his usual cool charisma but with an ample dose of post-war cynicism and disaffection. Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr are given less to do but have natural chemistry and that’s so good, you wish you’d get more of it. The cast is supported by a bravado Chadwick Boseman, a fierce Melanie Thierry, and a rare villainous turn from Jean Reno.
The friends are all broken. They laugh and they poke at each other, but each of them is haunted. The film is about trauma, as many war films are, but this is about the unique trauma facing black American soldiers. Fighting a white man’s proxy war in Asia whilst their civil liberties were being violently denied back home, is an entirely unique experience of the senselessness and cruelty of war.
Lee’s films always have immediate relevance and timelessness to their politics. Do the Right Thing has remained a vital film for 30 years after its first release. Lately, Lee has chosen to directly feature contemporary issues in his films. Ending BlacKkKlansman with horrifying footage of Charlottesville, where he compares shocking footage of the Vietnam war and the harsh measures taken against the civil rights movement in the US. The film ends on a message of hope, the possibility that the violence and horror of our past may give the young the. But the fight is far from being history.
Lee’s signature style sees still images, flashbacks, and archive footage utilised for narrative effect. These moments disrupt the narrative but intentionally so. The authorial voice reminds us that this is story is a construct within a very real world. Lee will use the truth to strengthen his story, and will find ways of communicating to the audience what is real and what is fantasy. It’s also a gorgeous film with fantastic footage of modern Vietnam, and compelling visions of the country at war. Lee captures the oppressive vastness of the jungle.
Though powerfully sincere, some of Spike Lee’s worse habits unfortunately shine through. The story has a meandering, almost improvisational feel with massive plot contrivances. There are large stretches where the script lacks focus. Characters bond through conflict and so are sometimes hard to relate to. It also gets very silly as the story progresses and we head into more traditional genre fare. There’s a hefty amount of thematic dissonance once the gratuitously violent action starts up in this movie about the harmful effect of societal violence. We also have some unfortunately poor CGI and decidedly unconvincing practical effects. These elements distract and detract from the power of the film, but that power is undeniable. It’s just not something you may want to experience twice.
Spike Lee’s most ambitious work yet is also a fantastic showcase of his greatest strengths and unfortunate weaknesses. It’s a fabulously messy film made with considerable passion and sincerity. An urgent and impressive work that captures the fury of the moment. In the years to come, this may well be seen as the definitive Spike Lee movie, but definitely not his best.