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Blood Diamond Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image “Blood Diamond” is one of those rare good films that informs as well as it entertains and incites emotion on part of the viewer. Conflict diamonds have been the news lately, but many people may not have taken the time to truly understand what is at stake regarding those gems. This movie delivers the information and the political problems behind it in a way that is both compelling and exciting. Viewers may well wonder about the origins of the diamonds in their lives and what the cost of getting them truly has been.

Aa blood diamond–also called a “conflict” diamond–is one that is mined in a country where slave labor is used. The diamonds are used by revolutionary forces to buy guns and other weapons to strike against government forces. The rebel forces invade villages and take strong men, women, and children to work in the mines. Most of those slaves are eventually killed or die working in the mines, either from abuse or the harsh environment.

At first glance, Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t seem the type to play a 31-year-old South African mercenary who is already jaded and world-weary. But he does, and he plays the role well. DiCaprio has never had the chance to play an action star before, but he shines as Danny Archer, the young mercenary who’s trying to find one last chance to get a big score that will allow him to leave Africa forever. Archer has been set up as a go-between for a South African colonel turned arms dealer and revolutionary forces surrounding Freetown. Danny’s job is to negotiate the price of the weapons for diamonds that the rebel forces have mined through their slaves.

Arnold Vosloo plays Colonel Coetzee, Danny’s military superior. As always, Vosloo brings an immediate chill to the screen whenever he is on it. Every time he plays an assassin or a military man, he looks like he’s lived the part for several years before becoming an actor. He’s one of those guys who is cut out for a specific role and doesn’t even have to try to suspend belief on part of the viewer. Even though his part is relatively small in the movie as far as screen time, he looms large in the overall scheme of things. Djimon Hounsou stars as Solomon Vandy (whose name almost sounds too much like Solomon Grundy), a fisherman in a small village quietly trying to raise his three children with his wife. His pride and joy is his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers), who has to walk five kilometers to school every day to learn the English language. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up. Solomon is a loving father and hard worker. All he cares about is taking care of his family. The scenes establish the characters in just seconds and make the viewers really care about them. One of the best things about this movie is how quickly character and situation can be rendered with just a few simple brushstrokes from the director and the actors. This is old-school filmmaking at its best.

The RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attacks Solomon’s village without warning while Solomon and his son are on their way back from fishing and school respectively. Solomon convinces Dia to hide, then tries to get his wife and two daughters out of the village before the rebels arrive. The constant barrage of gunfire, screams, and vehicle noise assaults the viewer and plunges him directly into line of fire. Anyone who isn’t moved by the scenes, especially knowing that events like these took place in reality, isn’t paying attention. The violence is graphic and necessary, and it drives home the point without being overly bloody. Even when the rebels chop off a man’s hand, the viewer doesn’t have to witness blood and gore to get the point. It’s the helplessness of the victims that slams home.

Archer has his own problems when he’s arrested by soldiers of the national government. They find the diamonds that he has sewn into the back of a sheep’s neck, and take him into custody. In just a few short scenes, we see how money and privilege work in these war-torn nations. It doesn’t take long before Archer is bailed out by his pilot buddy Simmons (Michael Sheen). All of this is revealed in short choppy scenes that almost plummet through the story rather than progress. Everything happens quickly, but the pacing is eloquent and the story is never lost. In this short instance, Archer meets Solomon and their lives are forever changed.

The film splits into different stories at this point. One thread ties together Archer and Solomon after a short time. Another tells what’s happening to Dia, Solomon’s son taken into custody by the rebel forces. And a third shows what’s happening to the rest of the characters in the story. The viewer never loses sight of what’s going on, and the stakes get raised constantly. So much is going on that many viewers will feel like the movie has lasted much longer than the hour or so it takes to get this far.

The scenes are emotionally driven. Seeing Dia pulled into the madness of the rebel forces is horrible to watch. The machinations of the members are the brainwashing techniques of a cult. The unflinching storytelling isn’t going to be easy to take. Even in America, children taking the lives of other children and even adults with guns aren’t original stories. This is even brought home when the young members of the rebel forces are sitting around listening to gangsta rap videos on televisions in the middle of the jungle.

Jennifer Connelly stars as Maddy Bowen, an international reporter who’s nearly as jaded as Archer. Quite frankly, though, Connelly looks way too good to play this part. Any woman who spent time in these dusty countries wouldn’t look as cosmetically appealing as she does–they wouldn’t worry about the makeup being right all the time or the hair necessarily being combed. There’s a scene later in the movie where Connelly's hair is messy, but the effect is ruined because her clothes look great. But she plays a good foil to Archer. The romance between these two characters is deftly understated and works out well for the overall character and plot arcs.

Michael Sheen delivers a solid portrayal of Archer’s partner-in-peril, Simmons. Simmons is an aircraft pilot not seen much in the film, but his presence puts a fine point on DiCaprio’s performance as Archer. In just a handful of scenes, Simmons lends authenticity, history, and weight to Archer’s past.

The attack on Freetown, one of the most important scenes, absolutely drives the action and danger home. Archer finds Solomon and tells him he needs to make a decision about whether he is in or out of the diamond hunt. Both men put each other to the wall to drive their bargains home while the rebels and the national forces battled each other in the city streets. One of the best examples of how bloody that conflict was comes when innocent citizens are driven before the rebel forces toward the government troops. With only a little hesitation, the government troops open fire and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children while trying to defend themselves against the rebels.

DiCaprio goes into full mercenary action during this time. His moves are smooth and elegant as he shoots his way through the bloody streets. The way he profiles his body and handles the pistol as he strides purposely forward over the bodies of those he has slain shows the training he’s obviously undergone for this part. He looks great in a firefight.

This movie is awesome on so many levels, but primarily because it truly is epic in scope. In other hands–another writer or another director–the movie could have been a simple linear telling of the struggle between Solomon and Archer. Instead, “Blood Diamond” sprawls, covering the huge and unique canvas that is Africa. One of the phrases that Archer keeps mentioning to people he meets is “TIA”—This Is Africa; he uses it to illustrate the point that despite the passage of the hundreds of years, the people who live on the continent continue to kill and take advantage of each other. He has a very bleak outlook on life there, and the viewers–after finding out everything about his life–won’t be able to blame him. This is old-school storytelling, something that could have been written by Alistair MacLean in his heyday.

“Blood Diamond” is easy to watch in one regard--the story and characters are compelling and engage the viewer fully. However, the story and material covered are difficult to deal with on an emotional level. Viewers are going to see things that aren’t pleasant, and it’s made even more so when they realize–especially through the accompanying documentaries—that all this is based on truth. So much story and characterization are pounded into the movie that many of the viewers may feel emotionally wrung out and exhausted by the time the final frames play through.

The special feature section on the disc is jam-packed with documentaries and additional information regarding conflict diamonds. There are also up close and personal interviews with DiCaprio, Connelly, and Zwick regarding their characters and the direction the film took. All of these are immensely watchable, enjoyable, and informative. It’s a tossup whether a viewer should watch the special features first, then the movie, or watch the movie then the special features for more information. Either way, both should be watched to get everything out of the film that’s there.

“Blood Diamond” isn’t a film for everyone. The movie has too much blood and gore for recommended family viewing, and definitely isn’t a date movie either. But for people who want an epic journey of discovery and loss, the movie succeeds brilliantly. The fact that it is informative and timely is just icing on a well-baked cake.

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