Four Vietnam War veterans reunite to honor their fifth fallen comrade and return to the field of battle to retrieve gold they buried there decades ago.
It's been 45 years, but the war never really ended, just as all wars never really end, for the people who participated in them, for the people they indirectly affect, for the land they take place in. The trauma of war is merely buried, like gold in a hillside, never completely destroyed, waiting to be unearthed—and, as with their squabbles over who gets what portion of the gold, everybody argues among themselves about who deserves their trauma.
Greed does not just apply to gold, these men are greedy for their entitlement to their own pain. African American soldiers are traumatized by fighting a war for a country that does not care about them, and Vietnamese citizens are traumatized by having a war fought against them in their country by people who do not care about them, and now they're fighting over who has the moral high ground rather than processing that trauma and trying to heal.
This is what's so tricky about Spike Lee's portrait of victimhood here: the Black soldiers and the Vietnamese citizens are both victims of American military imperialism, but that doesn't make them infallible. They still have their own flaws, their own unquestioned ideological prejudices. But the moments of healing come not from the conflict between them, but from their quiet introspection; healing doesn't come from fighting, it comes from crying.
But no one is rewarded for healing, the same way no one is rewarded with entitlement for their victimhood. The war rages on whether we deal with our trauma or not—and not just the Vietnam War, but the wars here at home as well. America is at war with Black people; it has been since its inception, and it still is to this day. Slavery and the Civil War may have "officially" ended, but the trauma lives on, buried gold waiting to be dug up.
This is where the brilliant formal conceit comes in, the use of shifting aspect ratios, originally switching between the square 1.33:1 and the ultra-wide 2.35:1 and eventually settling on the standard widescreen 1.77:1, and the blending of fictional narrative with documentary footage, jumping from historical photography to fictional scenes. The superficial distinctions between past and present are erased to give us one singular truth.
War never really ends, we just have to do the best we can to let our wounds heal and get back in the battle. Black lives may not matter yet in America, but we will fight until they do.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!