The American War is over.
Decades after surviving a harrowing experience during the Vietnam War while tasked to reacquire a chest of gold bars from a downed plane in Viet Cong territory, Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned to the South China Sea with unfinished business. It was their squad commander “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who decided to bury the gold so that they could retrieve it once the fighting stopped. He was educated in the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, bestowing their wisdom upon his men with an idealistic dream of giving that money to the Black cause back home as reparations for their sacrifices in the name of Uncle Sam. But he tragically never left the jungle.
Director Spike Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (reworking an original script from Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo that once had Oliver Stone attached) have therefore set these veterans on a quest to relieve the burden on their checkbooks and souls alike. Da 5 Bloods (as Norman labeled their quintet) will say their main motivation is to exhume their leader’s remains now that satellite photos show how a mudslide recently uncovered what past napalm drops had buried, but the gold isn’t far from any of their minds. Money is war and war is money after all. Heck, it’s what got Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) to show-up half from worrying about his father’s state of mind and half in search of an equal share of the spoils.
David’s inclusion is crucial to the one thread that truly resonates above an otherwise over-stuffed mess of convenient allies, obvious double-crosses, and clumsy politicizations. His presence grounds Paul’s inevitable flashback-fueled descent into the hellish landscape that is his PTSD-ravaged mind. Whereas the other three men struggled to cope with what occurred and created new lives as private citizens on American soil, their comrade never could shake his demons. Paul held Norman when he died and watched the life of the best of them leave his eyes. And it haunted his every move since whether the emotional abandonment of his boy or the inability to acclimate to a world that still provided opportunity. He lost his faith, trust, and love in the jungle at the whims of White America.
So while Otis, Melvin, and Eddie are partially here to enjoy themselves, Paul is solely on a mission to exorcise the ghosts that speak to him every night. He therefore risks alienating their money launderer (Jeno Reno‘s Desroche at the behest of Otis’ former lover Tiên, played by Y. Lan) by talking back out of a justifiable pride. He risks fracturing a brotherhood that’s stood the test of time (and his decision to vote for Donald Trump in a misguided bid to selfishly “get what was his” despite the historical reality that White America has never made good on a promise to give its Black population anything) by letting mistrust sow heavy dissent. And he risks losing his son forever in exchange for earning this prize.
It’s a powerful dramatic arc that goes to some dark places once Paul’s warrior mentality settles back in to quiet the voices society’s manufactured calmness had amplified. We learn why his connection to Norman is so strong, why he keeps his son at arm’s length, and why he resents the other men for being able to flip the switch in their heads that stops Vietnam from being a place populated by the enemy. With a fierce dedication to his goal and a take-no-prisoners attitude towards achieving it, Paul becomes an unforgettable depiction of the cost of war abroad and at home. And Lindo has never been better, delivering a performance for which we cannot look away—complete with fiery monologues that pierce our hearts with a righteous anger.
I only wish this expression of empathetic horror was the driving force behind Da 5 Bloods and not simply one aspect of its whole. If the only goal was to find Norman’s body and reconcile their experiences with a barely-changed present, the weight of what occurs would hit so much harder. I get why the gold is involved since the reparations plotline is a big part of the conversation these men need to acknowledge the difference between personal wealth and communal freedom, but it carries too much bombast that distracts from the nuanced character study trapped beneath its surface. And it turns French activists Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), and Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen) into trite pawns rather than insightful figures to unearth more of America’s monstrousness.
A lot could be excused if Lee and Willmott leaned further into the spiritual aspect of Paul’s mental fall as God, through Norman, teaches one final lesson before greed ruins everything, but they don’t. Rather than allow for “divine intervention,” events are born from lazy screenwriting that utilizes baked-in contrivances to propel us forward. Enough of the film is too cheesy and convenient to maintain investment despite the wonderfully potent performances. To hinge so much on the unique (and timely) internal workings of these Black veterans (Paul, David, and Otis mostly with Melvin and Eddie serving as placeholders awaiting their respective revelations of merit during the climax) only to let what I assume is Bilson and De Meo’s generic action plot prevail is a grave disservice.
That’s not to say that the good doesn’t outweigh the bad, though. I merely hypothesize that a great two-hour drama exists within this over-inflated, two and a half hour epic. The splicing of photographs and archival footage of contextually relevant Black luminaries is efficient and instructional, the Marvin Gaye soundtrack is emotionally resonant, and the decision to let Peters, Lindo, Whitlock Jr., and Lewis play themselves in flashbacks alongside Boseman is an inspired choice that augments those men’s performances in the present day. So why not let their characters grieve without the cheap theatrics of stoic heroism that subverts the whole notion of Vietnam being an unjust war fought by unwilling participants? Therein lies the difference between a masterpiece and an enjoyable popcorn-political diatribe existing within one’s shadow.
 DA 5 BLOODS (L to R) ISIAH WHITLOCK JR. as MELVIN, NORM LEWIS as EDDIE, CLARKE PETERS as OTIS, DELROY LINDO as PAUL, JONATHAN MAJORS as DAVID in DA 5 BLOODS. Cr. DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2020. David Lee/Netflix.
 DA 5 BLOODS (L to R) CLARKE PETERS as OTIS and DELROY LINDO as PAUL in DA 5 BLOODS Cr. DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2020. David Lee/Netflix.
 DA 5 BLOODS (L to R) NORM LEWIS as EDDIE, CLARKE PETERS as OTIS, ISIAH WHITLOCK JR. as MELVIN and DELROY LINDO as PAUL in DA 5 BLOODS Cr. DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2020. David Lee/Netflix.