The Reeler


December 8, 2006

Blood Diamond

Disingenuous issue film manages to deliver solid action thrills

Occasionally, fueled by Oscar pangs and artificial controversy, a Hollywood studio will tackle a former hot-button topic that has cooled down just enough to take a thin coat of gloss; the risk is minimal, and the potential plaudits are great. Edward Zwick, a specialist in this pseudo-noble genre --having made both Glory (racism is bad) and Courage Under Fire (which got credit mainly for being the first major film to acknowledge the Gulf War's existence) -- returns to the field with Blood Diamond, an entertaining action movie masquerading as an Important Social Document about "conflict diamonds" -- gems mined in African war zones and used for illicit arms purchase.

1999: Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting a thick Afrikaaner accent and agreeable amorality) is a weapons trader, swapping arms for conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone and then smuggling them across to the border to Liberia, where they can be sold to companies indifferent to their origin. In the Sierra Leone of the time, the diamonds were harvested by villagers kidnapped by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the film's decided villains. The Empire in Africa, a small documentary opening today timed as counterprogramming, comes to the defense of the RUF and blames the United Nations for the chaos in Sierra Leone, but Blood Diamond isn't really interested in who the villains are; a generic action film rather than coherent political analysis, the film needs bad guys for the chase sequences, but displays zero curiosity as to why a rebel movement emerged in the first place. “This is Africa,” DiCaprio says, and moves on.

Archer's ingenious smuggling methods (which include slitting open a goat's skin, stuffing diamonds inside the incision, and then pretending to be a National Geographic reporter following the goatherds across the border to Liberia to their legally entitled grazing grounds) don’t always work, and in fact lead him into the world’s first genocidal action/buddy movie. In jail he spots Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who has been captured along with his RUF kidnappers (the government makes no distinctions). Both are temporarily sequestered in jail when Archer, deeply in debt, learns about the diamond Vandy found for himself and hid from the RUF. Archer's need for money coincides with Vandy’s desperate quest to learn the fate of his family and, with the help of journalist/obligatory love interest Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), the inevitable long trip back to Vandy's hidden diamond -- necessary for a travelogue summary of Sierra Leone’s problems -- begins.

Occasionally, Blood Diamond pauses to make ponderous statements about the human condition (Leo: "Sometimes I wonder if God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other. Then I look around and realize God left this place a long time ago."), but Zwick generally sticks to his action guns. When the trio race through the jungle, trying to escape RUF troops, they might as well be fleeing velociraptors or cyborgs running rampant; political form never equals action content. To avoid confusion, the bad guys are re-jiggered into American gangsta thugs, blasting rap music from their jeeps as they flash their bling and Snoop Dogg T-shirts.

Africa itself is an alternating landscape of picturesque, verdant fields and cowering, oppressed refugees. Zwick asserts some "serious film" cred with plenty of segments of screaming children being separated from their mothers as James Newton Howard's score hammers every emotion home. But the film's successful delivery of action thrills works against its ostensible point: When a movie's most enjoyable sequence is the extermination of an entire camp of workers, something's gone wrong. And what is that message anyway? "It is up to the consumer to ensure that a diamond is conflict-free," the end credits declare -- not exactly a burning observation to most average-income viewers. Connelly's reporter tries to bring it closer to home: "You might catch a minute of this on CNN," she says, approaching a desperately overpopulated refugee camp, "between sports and weather."

Interesting, then, that the movie is produced by the same empire that owns CNN: divide and conquer in action, by selling piety to one audience and superficial news coverage to another. Consumers should probably worry more about media accountability than whether their latest tennis bracelet is conflict-free.

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