Issue #10: Who Will Survive In America? 🇺🇸
Da 5 Bloods + Gemini Man
They said it couldn't be done. They said we'd never make it. But we're steel here baby! We've officially been going for two months and ten issues, which, if you knew the limits of our attention spans, would astound you.
This week we're back to contemplating the ~vagaries of war~ which is perhaps not particularly surprising given the racial reckoning happening across the United States right now. Zosha has written a brilliant essay on the hell of war as relates to Da 5 Bloods and Vietnam, and Cate is tackling Gemini Man and the commodification of black bodies for war and violence in service of the state. The mood is heavy, but we've tried to make sure it's easy going down. We've got big ideas on the brain! Go forth and contemplate them.
Cate on Gemini Man
Written by: David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke
Directed by: Ang Lee
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
I have a lot of thoughts about Will Smith. I wrote most of them down in an essay earlier this year that was never published because it was essentially the deranged ramblings of a lovesick fool (jk, I missed my deadline because grad school. sucks to be me) but what they amounted to is what I’m confident the thesis of this review will also be—Will Smith is great y’all.
That essay was pegged to the release of Bad Boys 3—Will Smith’s first great film in what feels like an entire generation—a triumph despite the decidedly terrible copaganda vibes. Gemini Man on the other hand, is not what a lot of people would call a great film. You probably heard a lot about “high frame rates” and tuned out when the reviews were all bad (or maybe you’re smart, I don’t know). But I, a dedicated Will Smith acolyte have been dying to see it anyway because I’m so hungry for the Will Smith I grew up with. And the truth is, I enjoyed Gemini Man spectacularly, precisely because I thought it was ambitious and smart and actively tried to let Will Smith be good at being Will Smith.
Plot-wise the movie is deadly simple but I'm going to relay it in detail because it was fun. Will Smith’s Henry Brogan is the best assassin to ever kill people, but he’s been murdering for the state for so long that it’s started to wear on his conscience. He can’t look himself in the mirror anymore, so after his last perfect kill, he decides to retire. When he goes to hang out and drink on a boat with a fellow ex-assassin, that guy tells him that the last dude he murdered? Not a terrorist. HE WAS LIED TO!!!! *shakes fist* In reality, ole dude had knowledge the Defense Intelligence Agency (a very real American agency that I definitely knew hadn’t been made up for this movie) didn’t want to get out, so they sent their very best to get rid of him, and Brogan was their very best.
After that meeting, he finds a bug in his boat and burns the cover of fellow agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is trying very hard not to be hot the whole time and failing. She was stationed at the pier’s bait and tackle shop to keep an eye on both men but assumes she will be reassigned when the higher-ups realize her cover is blown. Danny and Brogan go on a weird non-date where Will Smith stifles every instinct he has to be hot and charming because this isn’t that kind of movie.
But zut alors! Brogan knows about The Very Bad Information That Cannot Get Out™ and so he’s gotta die too. The higher-ups (mostly just Clive Owen looking menacing) have indeed been paying attention and send a team of agents from his private security firm Gemini to kill everyone who might even have a hint of the nonsense he’s been up to. Brogan, being the best, bests them, then escapes with Danny to Cartagena via fated-to-die, fellow ex-agent Benedict Wong.
When they get there, Brogan realizes Gemini has found him and sent yet another assassin after him. The guy is really good at assassin things and his reflexes are incredible and he’s PARKOURing all over the place. But when Brogan finally has a clear chance to shoot him, there’s a twist! Parkour assassin has his face! He’s a clone of Brogan! The rest of the movie is Will Smith trying not to die and also not kill baby Will Smith while bringing menacing Clive Owen to justice.
I saw this movie in standard definition because I’m cheap and I didn’t want to pay for the 4KUHD format, but even that I’m sure would not have come close to the 128 frame rate director Ang Lee had intended. Despite this, I had a great time and didn’t find the tech to be all that distracting. Baby Will Smith (technically his name is Junior/Jackson Brogan) mostly works as a technical experiment and is believable as a real person for large chunks of the movie. To my paltry human eye, the only thing that seemed odd was that I could still sense the uncanny valley of the digital character. For most of the film, he looks like a much younger Will Smith stepped out of a very, very, very, VERY good video game. But there’s still that 0.009% of you that identifies the difference between his face and real life.
The other thing I noticed is that I sensed what I guess I’d call a lag(?) in the way the character moved in close up. I felt like I was looking at multiple copies of the same performance piled on top of each other but delayed by a fraction of a second. I am told this is approximate to what the motion smoothing effect on your TV tries to accomplish, but with actual frames instead of a computer generating frames to fill in the dead space. (The Blank Check Podcast’s episode on the movie explained it in a way that mostly made sense to me. Side note: motion smoothing is bad and you should turn it off.)
That said, Will Smith does a very commendable job of acting through the technology. Lil Will’s emotional journey comes across clearly onscreen and his ethical conundrums about the nature of his existence felt real and lived in. Willy Boy eventually realizes that the fictions Clive Owen had fed him while raising him as a son were fabrications designed to hide his unethical choice to clone a human being, and while the movie takes positively ages to get there, that’s the idea that feels the most urgent here.
In the final confrontation (and after the reveal of another Brogan clone!) menacing Clive Owen gives a big speech about cloned assassins being the most ethical outcome. He says that even the best people are human and they feel inconvenient things like pain and guilt. They have families who miss them when they die. His cloned soldiers have no family and have their feelings and pain bred out of them, and with an army of them, he could keep America’s families safe from terrorists without loss.
It was a fascinatingly clear-eyed view into the American experiment because my reflexive response was “which families are you keeping safe and from which terrorists?” Clive Owen’s assertion that it was most ethical to steal the literal labour and body of a black man in service of the nation-state is… not unfamiliar!!! To him, Brogan’s only value was in the skills he could use in service of the preservation of American imperialism, and his humanity meant there was an expiration date on his willingness to provide them. By eradicating what made Brogan, essentially, a person, he could also justify sending his clones into the most dangerous situations without his own guilt over their deaths coming into the mix. He even tells Brogan when the second clone dies, that a “real person” will have to take his place on the mission he was scheduled to deploy to the next day. With his experiment, he quite literally reduced a black man to a black body, and in doing so, marked it as endlessly expendable. For that thematic interrogation alone, the movie, to me, was worth it.
Final notes: I didn’t love that despite also being an assassinatrix/assassiness/Huntress, Danny needed to be told to do assassin things a bunch of times. She’s good at them and is active in all the groups’ escapes and confrontations, but I would think that she should also be operating within the same skillset as Brogan. I know he’s the best, but surely the other agents are also competent, no? I did however really appreciate that the hinted at romance plot between Brogan and Danny never materialized. I did say “NO KISSING” out loud to my television a couple times, so I’m happy to report the tiny people in the boob tube heard me.
Gemini Man bombed at the box office—though I continue to contend that earning a profit on your outrageously expensive movie is not a bomb but whatever. But it added to the narrative that Will Smith’s screen power is fading. Regardless, I enjoyed the film and the meta-narrative of a man at the latter end of his career contending with his own legacy. I hope Smith takes more roles like this in the future, though I hope he leaves the law enforcement gigs behind.
Remember Will, All Cops Are Bastards. Yes even your dad.
Zosha on Da 5 Bloods
Written by: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Paul De Meo, & Danny Bilson
Directed by: Spike Lee
Distributed by: Netflix
Nowadays everyone is trying their hand at softcore CGI: Marvel movies are littered with slight alterations, and even Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro de-aged so as to appear decades and decades younger than he really is. Not Spike Lee though. His Da 5 Bloods—denied anti-aging technology by Netflix, even when they offered Scorsese the same—proudly wears its age, weaving it into the very fabric of the film.
When we see the flashbacks to the four surviving members of the “Bloods,” an all-Black crew during the Vietnam War, there is only one baby-face among them. Chadwick Boseman, who plays “Stormin’” Norm, the sole casualty of the group’s time in the Vietnam War. The visual is strikingly powerful in its simplicity: He is the only one who will forever remain this young; he never got any older, unlike the rest of them lumbering around in their memories. It’s a cogent look at the grief you feel losing someone close to you, the way you can’t help feeling like you’re always measuring yourself, your developments, your survival against theirs.
Lee has, of course, always been acutely aware of the visuals he puts to film, often directly placing them in dialogue and lineage of them. It is probably not hard to clock the handful of Apocalypse Now references in Da 5 Bloods, from the use of “Ride of the Valkyries” to the way the helicopters swoop towards us from the sun. Lee always wants to note how we inherit these images, challenging how narratives have calcified over the years. Da 5 Bloods is probably the most potent utilization of his affinity for flashing influences and references on screen: watching the film feels like a memory stream, a memoir being written in front of our eyes.
Da 5 Bloods goes further, in fact, of putting forth the movie as a witness. The flashbacks to the Vietnam war are shown in a tight square, commonplace of the 16mm home cameras of the time—and much like the one the troupe carries in present day. When we see their travel through the lens of the camera, or their history through the aspect ratio of one, we understand a driving point for Lee: filmmaking as history-making.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Lee would so clearly state the moral compass for the movie: as the men return to the jungle to collect the gold and the bones they left behind, David (the sort-of subverted stand-in for Stormin’ Norm, all of his youthful vigor and standoffishness, but without any of the compelling charm*) meets a lady who dismantles bombs to atone for the hell her family had wrought in Vietnam. “It’s strange how a war never ends for those involved,” she says.
It’s a small sentence, but a glaring one (repeated later, just before a fiery stand-off for good measure). Suddenly our sense of these flashbacks shifts dramatically—it’s not just that these men grieve their friend who will never see his 50th birthday. It’s that they’ve never stopped seeing themselves in the trenches there with him. Some part of them will always be back in that jungle, shoulder to shoulder, rifle at the ready. For decades now they have been reliving, re-litigating that war, and there’s not one damn thing any of us can do about it.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t anything anyone can do about it; the film is fairly clear in its portrayal of veteran mental health. Paul, who steadfastly refuses therapy or veterans support groups, struggles everyday with the guilt from his time in Vietnam, undergoing bouts of PTSD that worry his son. When Otis begs him to come to a meeting when they return, Paul won’t entertain the thought—even as he marvels at how Otis’ life feels so much more secure than his is.
Throughout Da 5 Bloods, Lee leads us down a path of greed, brotherhood, war, and colonizing. The film places its Black leads in the legacy of so much of American oppression—slavery, racism, the denial of civil rights and freedoms even as they fight and die for their country—without fully releasing them from the colonial mindset that brought them to Vietnam. When Paul whips out his MAGA hat, his friends are, predictably, disgusted. But when he dies, that hat is taken as a souvenir by Desroche—violence begets more violence. (And, ultimately, everyone who wears the hat dies, so make of that what you will.)
Da 5 Bloods draws these themes of patriotism and violence and the violence that patriotism demands directly from Vietnam films** to further consider how deeply the rot was in that conflict. Perhaps the most indelible image we’re left with is one of Lee’s vision: unafraid to show his age, he is resolute in whatever choices he makes. Decades into his filmmaking career, he will stand by his choices, because even with the mess that he can sometimes produce (and, in a film that focuses so much on the experiences of his main men to the detriment of the Vietnamese and women characters that surround them, there is some messiness to Da 5 Bloods) there’s brilliance as well. Da 5 Bloods stands proud and tall, reflecting on all the aged wisdom it has to offer. The older actors are just one part of that.
**an addendum to my earlier pronouncement: World War I films are typically anti-war; World War II typically pro-war; Vietnam movies are about the hell of the Vietnam war, full stop.
¡Viva la Revolución!
Here's the list of links for this week!
The Social Justice Fund
Support the Lakota Land Defenders at Mount Rushmore
Support the First Nations Development Institute
Support the White Earth Indian Reservation Land Recovery Project
Support the Indigenous Environmental Network
GoFundMe for Diaz Love
Assorted Internet Detritus
Cate: I am thinking a lot about my place in the film industry these days, both as a critic and as a black woman. I'm using my yearly designated brag to inform you that I was nominated for an LA Press Club award this week, and I'm very proud of that. But I'm also very wary of the fact that prestige doesn't function the same when you are black. Prachi Gupta's "On Performing Gratitude" was a bit of an uncomfortable reminder that excellence guarantees nothing if you are from a marginalized group. I've also been contemplating my career prospects and coming to terms with the fact that as a black woman there are likely no safe workplaces for me in media, and what it will mean to continue in an industry where I will be silenced and pushed out despite my skill. R29's "For Black Women In Media, A "Dream Job" Is A Myth" cuts right to that, a colossal irony given R29's own track record of punishing and pushing out its black female employees. Lastly, I've been reading up the situation at WNYC and the growing pains of diversifying an overwhelmingly white workplace. Spoiler: it didn't work. There's a lot of messiness in media right now, but it's all I'm good at, which is a major bummer!
Zosha: I've been spending a lot of time this week with television as both a business and a personal calling. So, no surprise that I found this long-form self-own by the founders of Quibi to be extremely fun to read, as well as this rundown of what it means to go from Peak TV to no new TV at all. Also E. Alex Jung is doing some fab work over on Vulture this week with two delightful profiles, on Michaela Coel's journey in showbiz, and Thandie Newton being ready to share her experiences.
For issue #11 we're keeping it light with Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and Fast and Furious. It'll be a romp, we promise.
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Dismantling the nation-state and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3