At The Movies

Boardrooms and battlefields: American wars on screen

Spike Lee's Vietnam War drama and a made-for-TV White House biopic tackle US military history from different angles

Michael Gambon (centre, seated) in HBO's White House biopic Path To War. Da 5 Bloods stars (from far left) Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo (kneeling), Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors.
Da 5 Bloods stars (from far left) Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo (kneeling), Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors. PHOTO: NETFLIX

With the release of war drama Da 5 Bloods (2020, M18, 153 minutes, Netflix, ) from acclaimed American director Spike Lee, it is a good time to look at war films that stand out because of their unique - some might say controversial - point of view.

Lee's new film is an idiosyncratic, often bombastic mix of adventure, drama, comedy and in-your-face black history lessons that will be familiar to those who saw his last feature film, BlacKkKlansman (2018).

But, compared with that, this work's lack of thematic focus is more jarringly obvious. Four veterans of the Vietnam War - the conflict the Vietnamese call the American War - return for one more mission: to find the remains of their beloved squad leader, Norm (Chadwick Boseman).

The men - played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr - are also back for another, less honourable reason: to find the treasure left behind after their tours of duty decades ago.

There is an awful lot of "tell, don't show" as the personal histories of the four men are juxtaposed with the larger histories of the United States and Vietnam - in particular, how black men were over-represented in the fighting forces sent to Indochina.

Far too much ground is covered here, so much so that some issues are mentioned in insultingly trite fashion, such as the plight of Amerasian children abandoned after the American withdrawal from the region.

Fine ensemble acting is very much on display and the chemistry among the veteran black actors is obvious.

But even this film - an attempt at exposing the racial politics of a war in which a white establishment sent black men to kill Asians - cannot get away from committing cinematic sins of the type that plague too many war films.

The next movie, White House biopic Path To War (2002, PG13, 157 minutes, HBO Go, ), looks at the war in Vietnam from another angle - high, high up.

That would be the viewpoint of President Lyndon Johnson, who served during the years of rising conflict from 1963 to 1969 and also helped de-escalate it before leaving office.


Da 5 Bloods stars (from far left) Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo (kneeling),
Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors. PHOTO: NETFLIX

He is played by British actor Michael Gambon, who captures perfectly Johnson's blend of Texan charm and bullying aggression.


Michael Gambon (centre, seated) in HBO's White House biopic Path To War. PHOTO: HBO

This war movie mostly features men in suits sparring verbally in boardrooms, but there is far more excitement here than in a dozen scenes of GIs mowing down cone-hatted fighters in padi fields.

This made-for-television HBO movie, the last work of legendary director John Frankenheimer, was nominated for three Emmys.

It offers a thrilling, clear and deeply instructive lesson in how a nation with all the top minds and best weapons lost a war.

And now for something different: American Sniper (2014, M18, 132 minutes, Netflix, ) is the biography of Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Structurally, it is a dead simple good-versus-evil story.

Sniper Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is very good at what he does - and what he does is kill bad guys in Iraq. The villains are comic-book baddies, militants who hurt women and children. That classic war movie arc helped it earn plenty at the box office.

It is also a "clean" story about a hero because director Clint Eastwood and its makers strip away historical context - there is no mention of why Iraq was invaded or whether those reasons justified the deaths of soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The film's stance generated controversy on its release and it is worth a second look today if you have watched Da 5 Bloods, a film which is, in contrast, hyper-contextualised.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2020, with the headline 'Boardrooms and battlefields: American wars on screen'. Subscribe