The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 22, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond
: Edward Zwick
: story by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell, screenplay by Charles Leavitt
: Paula Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Darrell Roodt, Graham King
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo, David Harewood, Jimi Mistry, Michael Sheen

Let’s hope they don’t find oil here” says a villager, “Then we’d have real problems.” Considering the context – a nightmarish civil war that’s causing the death, disfigurement or displacement of hundreds of thousands – under the direction of another filmmaker that line might come off as almost too pointedly precious. But that’s always been the talent of Edward Zwick, to use the tools of melodrama – and I use that word in its classical, not pejorative, definition – to enhance our understanding of a world and condition whose collected horrors might otherwise be beyond our imagination. And to paint an enormous canvas while never short-changing the dimensions of the featured human figures in it.

Blood Diamond, as in other Zwick features like The Last Samurai, The Siege and Glory, there is never doubt that you’re watching Hollywood stars enact a Hollywood scenario with Hollywood dialogue. But the studiousness of Zwick’s approach, and this is reflected not only in Charles Leavitt’s thorough screenplay but in Leonardo DiCaprio’s transformative lead performance, bears effective witness to a tragic reality. We never forget we’re watching A Story, but we accept it, appreciate its expert exercise of the dramatic form, and through it can access what is happening to Africa.

What is happening is the latest version of an old cycle, where the outside world finds something in Africa it prizes – ivory, gold, now diamonds – and realizes that the cheapest way to come by it is to exploit the desperate poverty of the African people, arm them against one another and encourage chaos. We meet a mercenary Colonel (Arnold Vosloo) who sells weaponry to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. The rebels then slaughter villagers, enslave them to mine more diamonds, and try to overthrow the government, which then turns for assistance to the same Colonel’s private army, which swoops in and kills the rebels in exchange for, naturally, exclusive diamond mining rights.

The Colonel’s most valued operative is Danny Archer (DiCaprio). “Drafted” and trained as a child soldier many years ago, he’s grown into a callous but capable smuggler to whom killing is inconvenient but sometimes necessary. He’s not so much a practicing cynic as he is cocooned from the very idea of a life away from death and greed. Maybe the best, most finally revealing moment in DiCaprio’s performance, which is exacting and captivating and never asks for sympathy, comes as he positions himself with a rifle on a hillside, sees soldiers approaching, and unconsciously mutters “Ya, ya…” as he drives them to cover with a few shots, checks his ammo, adjusts his position, and hears them coordinating to continue their approach. “Ya, ya…” The soldier-of-fortune in him never rests, is never surprised by violence, but goes to work as if his mentor the Colonel is still right over his shoulder, teaching him how to do it properly. In the heat of battle, he is practically his most dull self.

Archer is a dangerous man not only because of his skill and lack of restraint about murder and duplicity, but because he is in a unique position to understand the whole landscape of the diamond trade. How diamond companies can pass high-minded bans against “conflict diamonds” – diamonds used to finance civil wars like Sierra Leone’s – but are quite happy to buy them once they’ve been smuggled into a neighboring country that can give them plausible deniability. They can then hide them in vaults, keeping the price down for the Africans who have them to sell, but inflating their scarceness and value for the Americans who will pay absurd markups for that anniversary present.

That’s the big picture that reporter Maddy Bowen (an effectively understated Jennifer Connolly) has been trying to piece together, and when Danny decides to hit on her in a bar, she seizes the opportunity to turn him into a source – not through deceit, but persuasion. What’s interesting about Blood Diamond is that the characters rarely lie – they openly admit to using each other, it’s simply a question of how their interests are aligned for that moment.

And everyone is trying to align their interests with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a loving father and fisherman who with selfless ferocity manages to help his family escape a raid on his village by a trigger-happy rebel militia. The leader of the “R.U.F.” (David Harewood), seems to honestly believe that if he shouts loudly and often enough that he is “fighting for the people”, the people will ignore that his men are gunning “the people” down, or hacking off their hands to prevent them from voting, or enslaving them.

Vandy’s fate is the latter, until he finds a clear, pink stone of extraordinary value, and buries it. Now his knowledge is worth millions of dollars, and many lives. He wants to find his family, everyone else wants the diamond. Danny forms an uneasy alliance with him, and Maddy tags along, and each has some skill or experience to help the other.

Their mission across a war zone, through all manner of devastations, becomes about more than the stone, it becomes about Vandy’s son Dia (Kagisa Kuypers) – who is captured by the R.U.F. We watch the horrifying process by which this boy – and hundreds of others like him – are drugged, manipulated, and brainwashed into becoming killers. In many ways this is a drama about how the boy Danny Archer became the man we see now, and what choices he has to make once he recognizes the same fate being laid out for Dia.

But Zwick is smart enough to know that the story’s heart is with Solomon Vandy, a character tailor-made for Hounsou’s fearlessly-focused passion. While everyone else is chasing ephemeral dreams of what the diamond might get them, what he wants is tangible and never-changing. He wants to protect his son, so he can grow up to be a doctor in a country at peace. That is the strength a character needs to drive a drama the size of Blood Diamond. We are able to care because he cares down to his last ounce of life.


  • I saw it some day ago and I really liked it. DiCaprio is very good in that movie. Probably his best role ever.

    By Blogger Bartez, at 3:23 AM  

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