Four black US Army G.I’s return to Vietnam in search of a fallen comrade and buried treasure. Officially there to take a battlefield tour and attempt to recover the remains of their sergeant, they hope to also leave with a crate of gold they had hidden on their final mission.
Director Spike Lee assembles a great ensemble cast in Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Jean Reno, and Mélanie Thierry and puts them to work creating an atmospheric, if sometimes clunky, action drama. The film opens with newsreel footage of the Vietnam period, setting the scene in perfect Spike Lee style, and giving a full background to the broiling racial tensions in that era of US history. Paul (Lindo), Otis (Peters), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) are the ageing veterans returning to a very different Vietnam from the one they left behind. Alongside their stated aim of recovering the remains of old comrade “Stormin’” Norman (played benevolently by Chadwick Boseman in flashback scenes) they believe they can recover gold that had been intended for their South Vietnamese allies, with a myriad of faces and problems between them and their somewhat difficult aim.
It’s a fairly standard set up for an action film – A band of warriors, a daring mission and some questionable allies. However, it is also shot through with satire and, like most of Lee’s films, is unabashedly political. Embedded throughout are references to real people or events, often accompanied with more flashes of newsreel that are relevant both to the time and American history in particular – it’s often worth making some mental notes to google said people later. Most significantly of whom, “Hanoi Hannah” (Van Veronica Ngo), infamous North Vietnam radio personality frequently pops up in flashbacks to deliver news directly to the protagonists from the Vietnamese point of view.
Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel decided to incorporate a distinct change in aspect ratio for all of the flashback scenes and to shoot on 16mm to give an authentic newsreel flavour to these key narrative pinch points. More than likely as a budgetary constraint, Lee also decided to eschew the use of CGI to make his older actors appear younger. Instead, they appear as they are now – old and out of shape, juxtaposed alongside their youthful CO Chadwick Boseman. This was actually a surprisingly affecting technique, evoking the line “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old” from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”.
Terence Blanchard’s score at times evokes the sad martial trumpets of Saving Private Ryan when the mood is reflective, or a sense of frontier adventure when chasing down the gold. Of course there is also the music of the era peppered throughout, with a particular emphasis on Marvin Gaye’s 1971 anti Vietnam War record “What’s Going On” (sometimes sung by the cast), a strong presence in the film which carries its own political relevance through Gaye’s lyrics.
Delroy Lindo deserves to be singled out for delivering a particularly strong performance as Paul, the MAGA hat wearing, anti-immigrant grouch. He imbues Paul with a deep sense of pathos, a man struggling under the weight of post traumatic stress and finding the return to the land of his former enemy a distressing experience. In the final act he delivers a fourth wall breaking monologue straight down the lens. It is a both immersive and sad, as well as a bucket of cold water to the face after some of the madcap action that precedes it. The film closes by drawing lines from the past to the present – the Black Lives Matter movement and the current, pressing fight to value Black Americans equally, unsurprising given Lee’s career-long dedication to addressing racial inequality through his films.