Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but, according to Judge Bill Gibron, they have caused a cataclysmic amount of grief—if the events portrayed in this Oscar-nominated film are to be believed.
It will cost you everything.
One has to wonder: Did all the pre-release hype help or hurt Blood Diamond? Rewind to a few months before the movie's release, when international gemstone syndicate DeBeers is in a good old-fashioned snit. The reason? A movie about the illegal trade in conflict jewels—or as they are referred to here, "blood diamonds"—is being readied for an award-season bow. All over the carat-oriented corporate world, pinstriped suits and starched collars are cutting off the circulation to the baffled brains of executives. The movie could ruin the lucrative market. Deciding that the best way to avoid a poor defense is a half-baked offense, the jewel merchants decide to jump the gun. They complain, in an open letter to the media, that Edward Zwick's condemnation of their stock and trade is an exaggeration built upon a fabrication, stoked by a series of overblown misconceptions.
For a while, reporters responded, while the marketing people over in Tinseltown weighed the options over how to react. The truth about what happened in Sierra Leone circa 1999 was considered, then cast aside. The decision made by the movie's makers was clear—do nothing and let the film speak for itself. Unfortunately, that caused a great big gray area for audiences. They didn't know what to expect when Blood Diamond finally hit theaters—and frankly, neither did DeBeers. Instead of delivering a searing denunciation of all that the gem biz stands for, up on the screen was a standard thriller with some good performances and just a modicum of controversial castigating. All the premature proclamations did was to confuse potential viewers, who wondered what all the commotion was about.
Facts of the Case
Solomon Vandy (Djimon Honsou, Amistad) is a fisherman in war-torn Sierra Leone. As he tries to feed his family, he strives to keep his son Dia out of trouble. The local rebel force, the R.U.F. (Revolutionary United Front), is "recruiting" kids his boy's age, turning them into self-sacrificing soldiers. One day, during a raid on his village, Solomon tries to stop the raiders. But he loses both his child and his freedom, suddenly finding himself working in the diamond fields of the resistance. While panning for gems, he finds a huge pink stone, a truly rare and priceless artifact. During a desperate escape, he hides it for future use. After making his way to Freetown, he meets up with Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed), a mercenary/smuggler who has learned of the jewel's existence. He wants to cut a deal with Solomon, especially since he owes an old friend called The Colonel (Arnold Vosloo, The Mummy) a great deal of money. With the help of reporter Mandy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind), Archer negotiates an arrangement: he will help the man find his family in exchange to the gem. But the rebels also want the rare rock and everyone is willing to kill for it. Even Bowen is intrigued. She wants to use the unusual resource as the basis for a story that exposes the whole Blood Diamond trade—an international racket that exchanges bodies for baubles.
Blood Diamond is a movie that can't stop moving. Even when it slows down to linger over scenes of supposed emotional weight, it is already thinking three sequences ahead. That's because Blood Diamond is also a movie of one too many narrative strands. Inside its twisted web of thrills and conspiracies, and war and rebellion, are takes on Sierra Leone circa 1999, the realities of the conflict gemstone trade, the lack of international recognition and/or response to same, and a savage story of tribes destroying each other in a cruel example of capitalism-fueled genocide. Though the reasons behind the civil war are never made crystal clear (we are told something rather Scarface-ish, like "he who controls the diamonds controls the country" before the opening credits begin), but the specifics over why government is gunning down resistance, and vice versa, are left for inference and conjecture. By the end of the story's massive two-and-a-half-hour running time, you're convinced that this entire uprising centers around stealing young boys so they can be brainwashed with drugs and rap music into becoming freedom fighters. It's clear that director Edward Zwick doesn't want to explain his position. He's the one that keeps pushing the movie to get off its ass and run! Thanks to a ready and willing cast, Blood Diamond just keeps on rolling along.
There is indeed a great deal to appreciate in the performances here. Though Jennifer Connelly has finally found a role that doesn't require her to look dour and distant, she's basically phoning it in as reporter Maddy Bowen—literally. Several of her scenes have her speaking to people via handset, trying in turn to call up the emotional response to what is happening on the other end. Even her inherent beauty is greatly downplayed to keep her rustic and "real." Additionally, Arnold Vosloo's Colonel character is a relatively mild baddie. While he does threaten a little boy and puff up his chest like an impressive villain should, there is very little about his character to cause concern. He's just a lot of hot African air. No, where the real acting chops lie is in the spectacular performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Honsou. Make cracks about his accent all you want, but Leo gets lost in his role as South African mercenary/smuggler Danny Archer. As with his equally effective turn in The Departed, this is the first time where the stud-boy superstar actually drops the drama queen conceits and actually plays a part. There's no coasting on his charisma or putting on a Tiger Beat game face. No, DiCaprio's Archer is a fully realized work of thespian craft, something the young gun should be very proud of. But it is Honsou who holds the movie together. He is our link to the chaotic country in which the story is set, as well as the manipulation meant to propel us ever onward. Through his grace and his amazing face, the entire Sierra Leone situation is mirrored.
Still, Zwick seems lost somewhere between Clive Cussler and Oliver Stone with this ersatz exposé. There are times when the film feels as hard-hitting and horrifying as the classic Italian Mondo movie Africa Addio (meant as an eye-opener regarding the fragile political and social state of the continent). Indeed, many of the clashes between rebel and government forces have an immediacy and a realism that physically glues us to our seats. We feel our heart beating faster and our pulse racing as innocent men, women, and children are gunned down in a manner reminiscent of the Nazi annihilation of Jews during World War II. In particular, a scene in the capital city of Freetown is terrifying, with DiCaprio and Honsou meeting up with aggression and atrocities around every corner. Granted, some of the rebel sections can be a bit trying. Do we really need to see kids being tortured into towing the party line, or lifting beers and shooting drugs as a way of proving their brainwashed battle readiness? It may be what really happened, but the film fails to lay enough foundation to earn our outrage and disgust. Similarly, there is very little heart in this film. There are moments where you know the filmmakers are figuring on an audience overcome by tears of anguish and sorrow. Since we aren't really invested in any one segment of the storyline, the manipulation is obvious and unaffecting.
In fact, had Blood Diamond trimmed away a few—or, quite frankly, several—of the subplots, and forgotten about the international diamond buyers, the London connection, and the unrequited and uncomfortable quasi-romance between Archer and Bowen, we'd have a much better film. Indeed, the best narrative would have been to follow Honsou as he locates a rare gemstone and buries it for future necessity, then risks life and limb to recover it when rebels hijack his family. Sure it sounds like a post-modern version of Apocalypto, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Since Zwick has a decent eye for action (the many foot chases and thrill sequences come off fabulously) and can handle scope rather well, this "one man against many" dynamic could have worked. But since almost every movie about Africa apparently mandates there be a white character (or in this case, more than one) to come along and act as savior for the decent but misdirected citizenry, Honsou is stuck with DiCaprio and Connelly as clear-thinking (and red-tape traversing) traveling companions. Add in the cartoonish supporting players who turn tribal conflict into a reason to act like violence-fueled morons, and you've got a very mixed message about what exactly Blood Diamond is concerned over. Do they want to stop the killing? The illegal mining of jewels? Or is this all just an indirect argument for colonialism as a means of keeping order?
Of course, the truth is far more horrifying than any film could ever be. Cinema needs to filter all events through a shroud of acceptability, to make sure that the rape and forced abortions performed on pregnant villagers, and the massive amputations and spree killings of the elderly and infirmed, are kept within MPAA check. Still, some of the distance from these abominations against humanity can be breached while keeping the basics of standard Hollywood moviemaking in one's creative sights. But Zwick definitely wants to have his carnage cake and carp about it, too. He wants the images and the anger associated with it, but just can't find the proper way of picturing it. One thing is for sure, the cold and clinical meeting between diamond merchants in Antwerp, Belgium, is not the way to go. These oddly out-of-place scenes, with their concrete and glass bleakness, have the opposite effect of what Zwick was hoping for. We tend to tune out as politicians and bureaucrats make grand pronouncements about their proactive stance in the situation, recognizing that they are, in essence, lying through their perfectly capped teeth. What Blood Diamond needed was more foundational sequences between the R.U.F. and the people they are persecuting. Once we learned why neighbor would turn on neighbor, child on parent, the rest of the sad situation would have come into focus.
While it may be unfair to cast this film in such a scurrilous light, the fact is that Zwick and his screenwriter, K-Pax's Charles Leavitt, really can't find a way to center this material. In fact, you can see the creative conflict right within the film itself. When DiCaprio "comes clean"—sort of—over his role as part of the multinational corporate desire to control the diamond market, the rapid-fire flashback explanations of all he does crackles with a real global cabal vibe. Similarly, a news caravan stop-off at an attack sight has the inherent suspense of any sequence taking place within a war-torn hot zone. But then there are the pointless asides, like the so-called sanctuary where a kind hearted teacher tries to rescue the kidnapped kids from a life as guerilla soldiers. You just know his noble intentions are coming back to bite him in the pride. Then there's the montage where Dia, Honsou's son, is coddled and manipulated into being a member of the rebel party. Again, Zwick's motives are so transparent here that we can almost visualize the coming standoff in our heads. Father and son are just preordained to have one of those "will he or won't he" moments where family must conquer firepower—and our filmmaker can't resist such cinematic contrivance.
The level of enjoyment you take away from Blood Diamond will be completely up to your ability to overlook several story stumbles, an excess of pointless periphery, a lame characterization or two, and the complete lack of an overall payoff. You'll recognize what this film really is—a throwback to the action-adventure epics of the '30s and '40s, with just a few more PC declarations thrown in for good measure. Zwick can fancy up his fiction all he wants, tying true-story tenets to every element of his narrative, but the reality is that Leo is just a corrupt Indiana Jones with the Geneva Convention and Greenpeace to consider. Include some WTO headaches, a smidgen of The Killing Fields' human cruelty, and a lot of local color (gotta dig the jargon, bru), and the result is a movie that makes a molehill out of a mountainous crisis. We learn that Sierra Leone is at peace now. How said armistice was achieved and the impact it had on people like Solomon Vandy is left for us to imagine. Blood Diamond is more than happy to trade on the horrifying circumstances that brought the conflict gemstone issue to the world forum. But just like the film that features it, there is very little closure to the concern. You'll be entertained, but here's betting you won't be satisfied.
Surprisingly, as part of this two-disc special edition release of the title, Warner Brothers offers up an unexceptional digital transfer. The image can, at times, look very soft and lacking in contrasts. Perhaps it was Zwick's way of conveying the stifling heat within the humid African environs. But for every startling 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen view (sunrises, sunsets, sweeping African vistas), there's a moment that appears purposely grainy and overexposed—as if we're watching recreated combat footage. The picture is not unwatchable by any far stretch of the imagination. It just doesn't look as good as a film made in 2006 should. Far better is the sonic situation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is magnificent, keeping the dialogue upfront and easily understood while maximizing the background ambience of a country in conflict. The speakers really do come alive during the numerous firefights, bullets bouncing between the channels in a very chilling manner. The musical score by James Newton Howard, however, sounds like a copycat collection of Enya outtakes. Between the pulsating beat of the omnipresent drums (you think Africans get sick of having their country constantly characterized as pulsating with polyrhythms) and the new-age keyboard canoodling, the soundtrack becomes an emotional liability to the overall effectiveness of the film.
As for the added content, it is spread out over two separate discs, with the first DVD offering one of the better bonus elements. Director Zwick is on hand for a full-length audio commentary and his insights are crucial to understanding the purpose of this film. Unlike the story itself, which tends to skirt over the actual facts and facets involved (it doesn't avoid them so much as provide a Cliff's Notes concept of their importance), the director dissects each and every circumstance, explaining the true events that served as inspiration for his movie. This is crucial in understanding how hip-hop culture infiltrated and inspired the R.U.F. rebels and why, to this day, the child soldiers of Sierra Leone have yet to be forgiven for their crimes. Zwick is a fabulous font of information on topics ranging from Leo's differing accents (and momentary slip into Creole during a crucial scene) to the use of CGI to turn Mozambique (the actual location) into the rugged terrain of Africa's West Coast. He may not be the most engaging speaker, but the details he dispenses are invaluable.
Similarly, a few of the bonus features on Disc 2 are little more than very revealing EPKs. Zwick repeats many of his comments about the movie's main attack sequence in "Inside the Siege of Freetown." The behind-the-scenes material and carefully controlled, choreographed action argue for the director's skill with such scenes. An interview with Leonardo DiCaprio accents the challenges faced by the actor in "Becoming Archer." Of particular interest is the extensive combat training he went through to look the part of an ex-mercenary/soldier of fortune. Finally, Jennifer Connelly steps up to discuss "Journalism on the Front Line." Her revelations are of the standard "shocked and startled" variety, but there is a genuine compassion on her part, especially when discussing the atrocities witnessed by reporters covering this kind of horrors.
But without a doubt, the best in-depth material offered here comes from documentary filmmaker Sorious Samura. His Blood on the Stone, 50 minutes of brutal realism about the still-stained diamond trade, is really remarkable. Walking us through the procedure from mining to merchandising, we are introduced to the Kimberley Process (a certifying agreement used to prove that African gems are not obtained via "conflict") and listen to the heartbreaking stories of child soldiers who were forced to kill in the name of political control. It's an amazing and uncompromising film that definitely makes the two-disc special edition (there is a single-DVD version of the title that contains the commentary only) an excellent digital package.
Somehow, it seems unfair to criticize Blood Diamond for failing to live up to expectations it never had a desire to confront in the first place. As much as it looks like a shocking exposé on the way in which warring factions spar over gems for their own political (and financial) gain, it's really just a return to the days when intrigue was expressed in a decidedly foreign locale and accent. You may question its less-than-effective investigation of the whole "genocide for jewelry" angle or frown over the incomplete presentation of the big picture's many miserable facets, but what's on screen is lively and kinetic, undermined only by its own implied standard of scope. Featuring fine performances, dazzling cinematography, and the kind of undiscovered outrage that will foster future discussions, director Edward Zwick and his company of concerned citizens have definitely done the subject a grand service. It won't keep the next natural resource-based political power struggle from welling up, but perhaps we can learn enough lessons from what happened here to minimize the damage. One thing is for sure: as long as there are diamonds, there will be those who will kill for their control, either directly or indirectly. This will, perhaps, be Blood Diamond's final testament.
Not guilty. Flaws and all, this is still a compelling action thriller worthy of your time as both entertainment and exposé.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Edward Zwick
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