BLOOD DIAMOND (2006)
TIA: THIS IS
It’s 1990, and we are dropped into the strife of civil war and anarchy in Sierra Leone,
West Africa. Many of the events depicted in the film were historically accurate. The RUF (Revolutionary United Front) were a rebel group who fought viciously and brutally against the ill-prepared government troops. But soon the rebels mostly roamed the countryside killing civilians and troops randomly, using the mass amputation of hands and the slaughter of the innocent to control the population. They also kidnapped, and then conditioned hundreds of thousands of young boys, drugging them and catering to their adolescent whims, turning them into hardened zombie killing machines; children no more, they shed their childhood holding AK-47’s, doing evil men’s work. Life could turn into a hellish maelstrom at any moment as warlords, thugs, bandits, rebels, the Army, and smugglers all competed for their share of “conflict diamonds”, that could be smuggled into neighboring
Nigeria and sold to the world in order to buy more weapons and bankroll more chaos masked as revolution.
The film was directed by Edward Zwick, a mainstream mover and shaker, who has specialized in creating films that take actual historical events and synchronize them with astonishing action and dramatic appeal –as many of his previous films are testament to; GLORY (1989), with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, a movie that made the Civil War feel like Viet Nam, LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994), with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, where the insanity of WWI destroyed a family; COURAGE UNDER FIRE (1996), with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, immersing us in the less than glorious human conflict of Desert Storm, and THE LAST SAMURAI (2003), with Tom Cruise, where we witness imperialism and the industrial revolution overtake tradition and honor. He is partners in a production company that put together SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), and TRAFFIC (2000). Zwick attended the AFI Conservatory, graduating with an MFA in 1975. Interestingly, his only Oscar came to him as a producer when SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE won for “Best Picture”. I found that in BLOOD DIAMOND, there is a tremendous sense of place, creating an atmosphere so vivid one could smell the streets, the garbage, and the corpses, and feel the humidity and the flies; much more so than say in THE CONSTANT GARDENER (2005).
The stunning cinematography done by Eduardo Serra did a lot for creating a world for us to inhabit for a couple of hours, his sterling images shifting from sun-kissed savannas to deeply forested steaming jungles, from ghetto squalor to serene country lanes, just walking past elephants as if they were yard dogs. He seemed always prepared to share a sumptuous vista or come in close on a character’s face, peering deep behind their eyes. He is a European lenser, born in
Portugal. Most of the 56 films he has shot were done in the French film industry. I remember being impressed with his work in WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998), GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING (2003), and BEYOND THE SEA (2004), that curious Bobby Darin bio-film with Kevin Spacey shot mostly in France.
Charles Leavitt wrote the screenplay for BLOOD DIAMOND. As a film experience, this movie would have stayed in the rough without his intelligent and powerful dialogue. He also wrote the screenplay for the interesting Indie, THE SUNCHASER (1996), with Woody Harrelson, and THE MIGHTY (1998), featuring Sharon Stone.
America it is bling-bling, but here it is bling-bang.
The musical score was written by James Newton Howard, who happens to be one of my favorite film music composers. In DIAMOND, his music seemed be romantic, edgy, exotic, African, and beautiful all at the same time –and it scored the action brilliantly. He has composed 113 scores since 1985. He scored NOBODY’S FOOL (1986), with Paul Newman, OFF LIMITS (1988), with Willem Dafoe, TAP (1989), with Gregory Hines, PRETTY WOMAN (1990), with Julia Roberts, FLATLINERS (1990), with Keifer Sutherland, GRAND CANYON (1991), with Kevin Kline, WYATT EARP (1994), and WATERWORLD (1995), both with Kevin Costner, DANTE’S PEAK (1997), with Pierce Brosnan, THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), with Bruce Willis, SIGNS (2002), with Mel Gibson, HIDALGO (2004), with Viggo Mortensen; both blockbusters KING KONG and BATMAN BEGINS in 2005, and LADY IN THE WATER (2006).
It seems that Leonardo DiCaprio has made some kind of artistic breakthrough, some powerful transition in this last year. In the past I have had ample reservations about his acting abilities, but in 2006, both in THE DEPARTED and BLOOD DIAMOND; he has emerged as a powerhouse. If he had exerted one tenth this amount of charisma in his former roles, he would have toppled the competition. He has been on the “A” list for over a decade, exuding a kind of wimp-charm, oozing wispy wannabe masculinity –but things are suddenly different, and I find he deserves to be on that list.
He plays Danny Archer, sporting several pounds of new muscle and an excellent “African” accent. When his character spoke to Commander Zero, they spoke in “Krio”, which is a Sierra Leone Creole language that is a mix of Nigerian and English. Archer is a former soldier of fortune, who presently happens to be a smuggler, and this portrayal is painted with strokes of brilliance. He nailed this character. By the end of the film we care a lot about him. As a soldier, he was a talented human weapon thrust wherever his superiors desired, sharp as a machete, lethal as a well directed bullet. But now he has “wised up”, and he is using his well honed survival skills to make money for himself. At one point Russell Crowe was considered for the part, and he would have been good in it too; but it would have been less a stretch for him. DiCaprio has earned the accolades that are now heaped upon him.
As good as DiCaprio is though, the film belongs to Djimon Housou as Solomon Vandy. Vandy, a simple proud Mende fisherman, whose personal tragedy and iron-willed sense of tenacity were placed well beyond pivotal to the plot. If Archer was the “intellect” of the film, and the cunning, then Vandy was its beating heart. Housou shows an impressive range as an actor, moving from parental tenderness to homicidal rage, from kidnapped slave to free man, from forced civility to unencumbered visceral torrents of resistance, wrenched from his family into forced imprisonment, and homelessness, only to emerge triumphant. He is nominated for an Oscar, and I think he deserves it.
Housou was born in Africa, in
Benin near the Nigerian border. As a teenager, he found himself penniless in
Paris, but soon he became a celebrated male model strutting strong on the catwalks –before he was bitten by the acting bug. He has been tremendous in several films, completing 27 of them since 1990 –but I feel that he is a much better actor than he has really been allowed to demonstrate. Like the towering Woody Strode before him, it is hard to get past his impressive physique and his handsome features. He is in his 40’s now, and perhaps some of those beefcake roles will go to someone else, and he will be given the opportunity to probe his humanness.
He began to get good notices after appearing in Spielberg’s AMISTAD in 1997. I liked him in DEEP RISING (1998), GLADIATOR (2000), THE MIDDLE PASSAGE (2000), and THE FOUR FEATHERS (2002). He shined IN
AMERICA (2002), giving us a glimmer of his dramatic promise. Following that he has settled for action roles in LARA CROFT II (2003), THE
ISLAND (2005), and ERAGON (2006). Finally, for my movie buck, he delivers the goods in BLOOD DIAMOND. Interestingly, he also spoke the Mende language of
Sierra Leone as his character in AMISTAD. When he was interviewed on the red carpet for the Golden Globe Awards, looking right into the camera he said, “I noticed everyone is wearing diamonds.”
At present there something called The Kimberley Process, which is an international agreement to stop the tide of “conflict diamonds”. The majority of diamond-producing or consuming countries, 71 of them, are members.
The rest of the cast were excellent as well. Jennifer Connelly played photo-journalist Maddy Bowen. She was very effective in the role, even though it barely tapped her range as an actress –never the less she was very good in a supporting role that a lesser actress might have just phoned in a performance for. We believed that she cared about human rights, and that she wanted to make a difference in the world. Some critics have disliked the upbeat ending to the film, but I enjoyed it. It was Maddy following through on her promises to Archer who facilitated and orchestrated the special circumstances that Solomon Vandy found himself in. I felt that it was frankly refreshing to see a film of this scope and magnitude, capturing a bloody and violent swath of history –end up on a positive note.
Maddy: You lost both your parents?
Archer: That’s a polite way of putting it, yea. Mum was raped and shot –and Dad was decapitated and hung from a hook in the barn. I was nine; boo-hoo, right?
Her love affair with Archer, brief as it was, did seem a little forced, almost arbitrary –but the actors were good enough to sell the emotions. She actually hurt her neck in the car chase scene with DiCaprio driving that bullet-ridden Land Rover. Connelly came to films as a child, scoring well in Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH (1985), dancing with David Bowie. Growing up fast she appeared in the wonderful campy THE ROCKETEER (1991), living with its star, Bruce Campbell for 5 years. Her nude scenes in the period crime thriller
FALLS (1996) were astonishing, working with Nick Nolte. She did
CITY (1998) with William Hurt, and she became so emaciated and thin to appear in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). Then she sprang back working with Ed Harris in POLLOCK (2000). She was wonderful as Alicia Nash in Ron Howard’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), and she picked up her paycheck for lazing through Ang Lee’s CGI-blessed HULK (2003), doing serious work in HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (2003), with Ben Kingsley. She is now married to fellow actor, Paul Bettany, and they have a son. She speaks fluent French and Italian, and she is a vegan.
Some of the war journalist scenes were action-riddled, reminding me of other war zone reporting and other films about those eras; like Roger Spottiswoode’s UNDER FIRE (1983), with Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman –about Nicaragua in 1979; Oliver Stone’s SALVADOR (1986), with James Woods, and a seldom-seen FRANKIE’S HOUSE (1992), about reporting in
Laos in 1964.
The always reliable Arnold Vosloo was cryptic and ruthless as Colonel Coetzee. This kind of villain can be boring, but Vosloo, in a few brief scenes makes a strong impression. He actually was born in
Africa too, as was Hounsou. Perhaps that is why Vosloo seemed to be so comfortable in the Veldt and humidity. His specialty seems to be heavies in films. He has a hard time these days escaping the specters of two of his better roles, High Priest Imhotep from THE MUMMY (1999), and THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). Prior to that he had taken over the DARKMAN series from Liam Neeson, doing DARKMAN II (1994), and DARKMAN III in 1996. But I do remember him sparing with Gerard Depardieu in Ridley Scott’s 1492: CONQUEST OF
PARADISE (1992) and I liked him very much as terrorist Habib Marwan on Day 4 of the television series 24.
Michael Sheen was all snake oil and big business as Simmons, the front man for the Van De Kaap Corporation –and he was so effective and hateful it was hard to realize that this is the same actor who delighted us as the turret’s stricken Mark Furness in the wildly eccentric British comedy, DIRTY FILTHY LOVE (2004). He was quite good in THE FOUR FEATHERS (2000), with Djimon Hounsou. He was powerful and hardly recognizable as the Werewolf Lord Lucien in UNDERWORLD (2003), unsettling as the errant priest who deserved to be killed in
HEAVEN (2005), and he did a bang up job playing Tony Blair in THE QUEEN (2006), with Helen Mirren.
I thought it was great to see so many authentic African faces playing the majority of parts in BLOOD DIAMOND. Young Kargiso Kuypers was a real stand-out as Solomon’s son Dia Vandy. His excellent transitions from loving child who did well in school to please his parents to that drugged-up and lethal stone killer and “child soldier” were chilling. American actor Stephen Collins was very smooth as caring Ambassador Walker.
Archer, the soldier of fortune, and Vandy the proud fisherman were both African –native born; and they represented the whole spectrum between whites and blacks, between a civilian who is forced into a dangerous situation and a smuggler who actually worked hard to include him in the melee. Their motivations could not have been more different, but ultimately they found themselves shoulder to shoulder dodging bullets and killing thugs to survive, to continue on their incredible quest to recover the 100 carat gem the size of a goose egg –the “blood diamond”. That journey and adventure would change both of their lives forever and the closure was unexpected, yet welcome.
I am haunted by those scenes in the Van De Kaap diamond warehouse, probably in
Antwerp, where the literal tons of gems were hidden and housed in order to control the diamond market. I have read about and heard about such blatant and greedy manipulation by the diamond companies and mine owners, but somehow to see it in front of you like that –it makes me not want to spend a couple grand on my wife’s next anniversary ring. If those cached gems were ever to hit the world market, diamond prices would plummet to the level of peanuts. So diamond merchants firmly join the rank of oil barons and computer software companies in the merciless manipulation of the masses. I for one resent the hell out of all it.
Archer: Sometimes I wonder if God will forgive us for what we’ve done to each other. Then I look around, and realize the God left this place long ago.”
I would rate this film at 4 stars.
Glenn Buttkus 2007