Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Caruso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo, David Harewood, Basil Wallace
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence and language)
Running Time: 2:30
Release Date: 12/8/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
There's a fine line between exposé and exploitation, and it's one Blood Diamond tries with varying success to balance. The subject, the international market for conflict diamonds (diamonds used by an insurgent or invading force to fund their efforts), is an important one, and there must be a certain tradeoff to make a serious subject appeal to the greatest audience. Hence, we have a thriller, set against the backdrop of a civil war in Sierra Leone, that makes a valiant attempt to bring attention to the issue (which still is a problem in Africa) but falters in placing it in predictable, formulaic action piece. With this comes moments of, at the worst, questionable motivation or, at the least, questionable execution, but either way, there's something disquieting about watching innocent men, women, and children indiscriminately gunned down when the focus of the sequence is, at its core, a simple chase. The movie has many assets, though. It is not blind to political reality. It features a central figure who is the definition of an antihero. It is directed with skilled visceral polish by Edward Zwick. And despite problematic moments that do underplay the importance of the subject matter, the movie's heart seems to be in the right place.
In Sierra Leone in 1999, a civil war is underway between the government and the Revolutionary United Front. A fisherman named Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) awakens his son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) to take him to school. Meanwhile, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) has arrived by plane to Sierra Leone to receive a payment in diamonds for a load of weapons soon to arrive. Solomon and Dia are on their way home from work and school respectively when they encounter the RUF on the road. Solomon returns to his village to find the RUF randomly killing his neighbors but manages to send his family away before he is captured by the fighters. Archer, in the meantime, is arrested trying to smuggle the diamonds across the border into Liberia, where these conflict stones are laundered into the system of legitimate diamonds. Solomon is forced to mine diamonds out of the water and happens upon a doozy of a rock and buries it before being arrested by government forces for alleged connections to the RUF. In prison, Archer overhears an RUF member speaking of Solomon's diamond. He gets Solomon out of jail, and soon the two are making their way to find the stone.
Fairly simple, but there's a lot else going on. Solomon's son is picked up by the RUF and becomes a child soldier in the uprising. Archer encounters an American journalist named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who wants information regarding the trafficking of diamonds into Liberia and their connection to a major diamond mogul. There's also Col. Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), Archer's former commander who sells guns to the RUF and is now hired by the government to help eradicate the rebel force. Maddy's importance to the story is fundamental, as she becomes somewhat of a moral compass for the audience. At one point, the trio of Archer, Solomon, and Maddy encounter a refugee camp of about a million homeless people. She comments that there'll be about a minute of this kind of coverage on CNN in between sports and weather. When Archer tries to debunk her reporting by talking about American women's demand for what he helps supply, she retorts that not all women want a storybook wedding with a large diamond, just like all Africans don't kill each other. It's an important reminder, since most of the action sequences contain Africans killing each other.
Part of the movie's problem, then, is that we need a character to express in words what the movie fails for the most part to show. The one instance of a sympathetic character within the bloodshed is Benjamin (Basil Wallace), who helps former child soldiers recover, but even he becomes a victim of the violence. The violence itself—as gruesome as it is—is unfortunately underplayed by uncomfortably shoving it into an action formula. Innocent people are gunned down by both sides of the conflict in one sequence set in the city streets, but the movie focuses on Archer and Solomon and their escape. Clearly, the movie is not an in-depth analysis of the situation at hand, but that does not make its attempts to garner thrills from tragedy any less questionable. There's even the conceit of a villain, here in the form of Captain Poison (David Harewood), who is injured during the raid in which Solomon is arrested and becomes Dia's commander. He is even given a distinguishing physical trait in the form of one eye, just to remind us that he is the villain. What the movie gets right, without any kind of attempts that might exploit, is the depiction of the training of child soldiers. It's a frightening portrait, and the film's conclusion tells us there are still some 200,000 child soldiers in Africa.
Blood Diamond is crafted with skill, and the fact that it will bring attention to a few important international issues that otherwise might not reach a wide audience is an inherent good. Leonardo DiCaprio is convincingly treacherous in a layered performance and gives the piece a level of moral ambiguity, and Djimon Hounsou turns in an impassioned performance. But the question is not whether Blood Diamond succeeds as a mature, politically-minded piece of entertainment but whether it should be an entertainment in the first place.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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