Blood Diamond (2006): Zwick’s Intriguing Political Movie Starring DiCaprio

Part “social issue” movie about the trade of illegal (conflict) diamonds in Africa, part a family melodrama about a father whose young son is abducted by the military, and mostly an old-fashioned Hollywood adventure, Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” tries to do too much within its two-hour frame, resulting in an intriguing but not satisfying picture.

Zwick is using the same strategy, one that could be summed up as message and action, that has defined most of his pictures, such as “Glory,” “Siege,” “Courage Under Fire” (his best picture to date) and most recently “The Last Samurai,” with Tom Cruise. And while his heartand politicsis in the right (liberal) place, his cinematic skills are marred by penchant for sentimental melodrama of the grand Hollywood style.

Hence, while it’s easy to praise Zwick’s choice of politically relevant and controversial topics that his peers steer clear off, it’s not as easy to adore his films due to their old-fashioned “humanistic” treatment. As a result, “Blood Diamond” is a mixed bag, a sharply uneven picture, with many breathtaking and touching sequences but also just as many predictable and schmaltzy ones.

On one level, the film is a character study of two disparate men and one eccentric womanblessedly they don’t form a romantic triangle, though Zwick manages to incorporate a love subplot into his already richly textured adventure.

Set against the backdrop of the chaos and civil war in Sierra Leone, circa 1999, Blood Diamond is the story of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a Mende fisherman. Both men are African, but their histories and their circumstances are as different as can be–until their fates become joined in a common quest to recover a rare pink diamond, the kind of stone that can transform one’s lifebut also terminate it quickly and violently.

Solomon, who has been taken from his family and forced to work in the diamond fields, finds the extraordinary gem and hides it at great risk. Solomon knows that if discovered, he will be killed instantly. But he also knows that the diamond could not only provide the means to save his wife and daughters from a refugees’ life but also help to rescue his son, Dia, from an even worse fate as a child soldier.

Having made his living out of trading diamonds for arms, Archer learns of Solomons hidden stone while in prison for smuggling. He knows a diamond like this is once-in-a-lifetime findvaluable enough to be his ticket out of Africa and away from the cycle of violence and corruption in which he has been a willing player.

Enter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an idealistic American journalist for “Vanity Fair,” who is in Sierra Leone to uncover the truth behind conflict diamonds, exposing the complicity of diamond industry leaders who have chosen profits over principles.

Maddy seeks out Archer as a source for her article, but she soon realizes that it is he who needs her even more. All the relationships in the story are first defined by asymmetric power and exchange of favors before changing into more mutually respectful ones.

The manner in which Maddy manipulates the military oppressors and the rebels alike seem simplistic–she seduces them with her camera, literally. However, with Maddys help, Archer and Solomon embark on a dangerous trek through rebel territory. Archer needs Solomon to recover the valuable pink diamond, but Solomon seeks something far more precious–his son.

Ultimately, the messagy movie is about learning what’s important and valuable in one’s life. Hence, it is structured as a journey, both physical and metaphoric, in which each of the three characters gains self-awareness and in the process sacrifices and redeems himself/herself for a larger goal.

When the story begins, each member of the trio is motivated by personal, or even selfish reasons. For Archer, it’s the stone; for Solomon, it’s finding his son and reuniting his family; for Maddy, it’s being the first to report the issue and get her story published as quickly as possible.

The juxtaposition of Archer, as a man obsessed with finding a valuable diamond, with Solomon, as one willing to risk his life to find his son, constitutes the heart of the picture, which serves well its dramatic purposes but is too schematic. Archer and Solomon set off on a long, torturous, bloody journey: The former with the intent of getting off the continent, the other with the intent of getting his family back. Nonetheless, each character ends up struggling with his moral decisions and inner demons, placed against a chaotic, ever-shifting political context.

Two adult characters represent the horror and the hope of the child soldiers. On the one hand, there’s the merciless rebel soldier Captain Poison (David Harewood), who is personally responsible for capturing and enslaving Solomon Vandy and then victimizing his son, Dia. At one point, the Captain says: “You think I am a devil, but only because I have lived in hell. I want out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Benjamin (Basil Wallace), a dedicated teacher who runs a school for the war’s youngest victims, including former child soldiers. It’s a place where, as Benjamin says, “children are brought back to life.” From Benjamin’s vantage point, although these children have been put through hell, they still represent our future, and have to be loved and nurtured–as children.

The movie offers semiotics scholars a field day for deconstructing the meaning of diamonds. The commercial world sees diamonds as sparkling, beautiful, and highly prized. For others, they are symbols of love and fidelity, affluence and glamour. The cynical journo Maddy puts it into words when she says that diamonds are not every American girl’s dreams (paraphrasing Marilyn Monroe’s famous son, “Diamonds Are Best Girl’s Friends”).

However, in Sierra Leone, where many of the worlds diamonds are mined, they have taken on much darker connotation. Conflict diamonds are stones that have been smuggled out of countries at war, and then go on to pay for more arms, increasing the death toll and furthering the destruction of the region. They may amount to a small percentage of the worlds sales, but in an industry worth billions of dollars, even a small percentage is worth many millions and can buy innumerable small arms.

Integrated into the movie’s central adventure is the global diplomatic world in the late 1990s. Politicians from such NGOs as Global Witness, Partnership Africa-Canada and Amnesty International give diamonds a name–“blood diamonds”–in order to help bring the crisis into the public consciousness.

The subject matter of Blood Diamond must have posed a challenge to the filmmakers, who go out of their ways to balance images that confront and assault the viewers with others that are meant to entertain them. Walking a tight rope between the two, the movie is not entirely successful. The first real is extremely violent, depicting the political chaos and horrendous circumstances that prevail in Sierra Leone.

Indeed, at first, it’s hard to comprehend the political sides of the story, or the government army versus the rebels. Innocent civilians are shot in cold-blood. In the first ten minutes, a young boy captured by the military is told, “The future is in your hands,” whereupon his hand is brutally cut off with a sword.

Partially dictated by the story, the movie tries to show the two sides of the region: the brutal, violent fights, but also the great beauty of the landscape and the noble emotions of the characters caught up in those situations.

“Blood Diamond” serves as test case of a long tradition of Hollywood problem pictures aiming to be authentic in dealing with real political issues, and at the same time entertain broad audiences, which dictates simplification of complex global issues, assigning psychological motivations to the characters, and ending the picture on a reasonably upbeat note that stresses moral redemption rather than crisis and conflict.

Thus, we get family histories of both Archer (both parents killed and mother raped too when he was 9) and Maddy (a journalist tired and bored of writing about real estate and interest rates). She is a reporter who has not lost her idealism and commitment to the right cause.

Though mostly set in Sierra Leone in 1999-2000, “Blood Diamond” clearly wants to draw attention to broader issues and other locales, namely, the exploitation of Third World countries by Western powers such as the U.K. and the U.S. While the scarce resource in this tale is diamonds, the same exploitation could be depicted in the case of other scarce natural resources, such as rubber, gold, oil, which more often than not results in a tragedy for the country in which they are found.

In the midst of the escape and tumultuous drama, Solomon encounters an old innocent man who observes: “I hope they don’t find gold in our country, because it will make the situation worse.” Inevitably, and rather nervously, we react with ironic smile to this statement, because we know from history that the resulting riches from these resources seldom benefit the people of the country from which they come.

The filmmakers hold that the story could apply to any place where ordinary, innocent people are caught up in political events beyond their control. And though, most of the saga deals with the tragedy of blood diamonds, a more far-reaching crisis resonates through the picture: The haunting theme of child soldiers and the debasement of children, deprived of normal life and forced to kill without even knowing or looking at their targets. One of the film’s most powerful images depicts a boy soldier in uniform and blindfolded forced to shoot a man against the wall.

Not surprisingly, due to the fact that it tries to accomplish too muchwithin the frame of a big-budget entertaining Hollywood epic–the film’s weakest part is the writing, credited to Charles Leavitt, from a story by Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell. Leavitt has previously scripted “K-19,” also a flawed, diffuse picture. Reportedly, when they came on board the project, Edward Zwick and his producer partner Marshall Herskovitz continued to develop the story with the film’s producer Paula Weinstein, who has made in the 1980s the anti-apartheid film, “A Dry White Season,” with Marlon Brando and Susan Sarandon.

Shot on location, “Blood Diamond” boasts strong production values in every department, courtesy of the gifted director of photography Eduardo Serra, production designer Dan Weil, and costume designer Ngila Dickson. Trying to navigate a diffuse picture, with many subplots and locations, editor Steven Rosenblum does what he can to give the film sustained tension and dramatic continuity.

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