Every once in a while I like to review one of them films that’s all like “I’m big and important! Listen to me!” and ones that lazy critics call “an unflinching portrayal of X that cuts to your core or some shit.”. Today’s film fits both of those categories by being about all sorts of important human rights issues and war and stuff that requires Leonardo DiCaprio to pursue an Oscar again. Blood Diamond is a story set during the conflicts in Sierra Leone at the end of the 20th century when child soldiers were used to fight wars that propagated the selling of diamonds mined from conflict zones in Africa. Millions of African people were forced to leave their home towns to become refugees from a conflict they played no part in over a commodity they would likely never see. There’s a potentially strong and worthwhile story to tell here. Does Blood Diamond manage that? Click the link below for my thoughts.
The main story that pulls you through the film follows a father who’s taken away from his family by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) and forced to mine for diamonds. The RUF at the time were responsible for the use of child soldiers, almost always children taken from their families and reconditioned to fight a war. They would also cut the hands off anyone that they didn’t want for the mines in order to stop them from being able to vote. The father, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), soon learns how harsh life in the mine is as workers are killed for attempting to hide even the tiniest diamonds for themselves. Solomon finds a clear diamond the size of a small birds egg and, in the midst of a raid on the mine he buries it out of sight with the intention of finding it later. After being captured as part of the illegal mining operation a diamond smuggler called Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) overhears talk of this diamond and uses his connections to free Solomon with the intention of using him to recover the valuable stone. They soon meet an American reporter, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who’s looking to expose a jewellery company thought to be buying conflict diamonds. Their journey to find this blood diamond Solomon has buried leads them on a route through the worst of the troubles Sierra Leone experienced at the time and questions the nature of why people do horrible things to each other for such a small reason as a tiny rock. It also does the whole “are people basically good” thing and then turns into a Hollywood action blockbuster at random intervals.
Blood Diamond is a slightly confused film. It begins by depicting the horrors of the time, families torn apart, needless slaughter of innocent people, children having their hands removed. The sort of thing you would have heard about on the news but never seen the aftermath of. The news at the time liked to focus on the use of child soldiers rather than everything that led them to being there. So right from the start the film sets itself up to be a harsh look at, and a condemnation of, the terrible conflicts of those years. The trouble is that whilst it’s a clear condemnation, and whilst the film remembers to say what the cause of this is, it stops a little short of delivering the true gut punch along with any powerful truths. The film ends with some text asking if you truly know where the diamonds you may own come from but his message isn’t hard enough in its approach to make the audience potentially feel bad for any diamonds they may have purchased in the past without questioning their origins. To add to this the final hour of the film appears to lose sight of its main focus on the setting and begins to allow itself to be more of a straight forward action film with occasional heart-string tugging attempts.
About a third of the way into the film you can begin to feel this shift happening. We start to see a story arc for Danny that involves him using his morally dubious methods to buy his way out of Africa. He has that goal to escape this world in his mind and along the way he gradually learns that, despite the impression he gives, that he may well be a basically good person. He puts the needs of Solomon and Maddy ahead of his own promising them what they want whilst making it clear to them that he’s only interested in that diamond. Along the way there is a few sequences involving the RUF attacking towns or Danny and Solomon’s path being blocked by militia. At these points we start getting action beats. And not just simple moments of heightened tension and hostility, but full blown set piece driven action sequences. It turns out that Danny was formerly a mercenary and is pretty much a super soldier. He does the old fake prisoner quick-draw trick on some guards. He pops caps in heads like it’s a reflex. There’s even a brief car chase sequence.
Now, as a fan of the more flamboyant films out there I can’t say that having a disconnect between the thematics and the presentation cannot result in full cohesion. As you may be aware I am a little obsessed with RoboCop. A film that juggles a number of themes smartly whilst also being a ridiculous action Sci-fi B movie. But when a film is taking on very real conflicts and attempting to deliver a message that is not just meant to make you think but to also effect how you regard your own life you can’t really juxtapose those thematics with big Hollywood action scenes. You can’t depict a near morally corrupt character as a hero. You can’t layer on schmaltz at the last few scenes. The film has to decide it’s path, tone and message and stick to it. This isn’t a story meant to cover a broader scope of humanity, allowing it the leverage to be a genre piece. This is a story about real events, real suffering and real horror that still go on today. To frame scenes of violence as action set pieces with moments intended to make the audience cheer and sequences designed to make a character appear heroic for the purpose of giving him a happy ending goes against the reality of the story.
That all said, Blood Diamond is still an exceptionally well made film in terms of shooting, cinematography and the progression of it’s actual narrative. Edward Zwick’s direction is as solid as it always is. But as with The Last Samurai his story is at odds with the action he presents on screen. I get the impression from some of his work that he’d like to make big action movies that make you think. He needs to pick better subjects. The production quality is superb though with only a few composite shots showing cracks in the film’s veneer. One scene at a beach side bar at night has some particularly badly done digital compositing with all sorts of rough edges around character’s heads where the night sky has been implanted behind them. On a technical level there really is very little to fault the film on. Which is typical of Zwick to be honest. He’s a very much an above average director who I always think is on the cusp of making something exemplary.
Performances are strong throughout the film, especially from Djimon Hounsou and David Harewood. The latter of which plays the films de facto villain of Captain Poison, and RUF soldier responsible for the attack on Solomon’s village and the taking of his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) who is then enlisted into the RUF’s military. Captain Poison is pretty much an irredeemable terror of a person that is the argument for Danny’s belief that not all people are basically good. The argument being that no good could exist in such a man. There was a missed chance to depict the character as something more than being just pure evil, but as he is he’s a pretty incredible villain anyway. That said, the fact he is so incredibly nasty leads to one of the previously mentioned audience cheer moments when he is eventually killed.
Overall Blood Diamond is a very well made film that needed to decide sooner what sort of story it was telling. Its gradual reliance on Hollywood tropes or warm fuzzy feelings, action set pieces and romance all work to diminish the potentially powerful message the film could have delivered. There is way more good to the film than the bad though and as a piece of entertainment it manages to succeed fully. It’s just that this shouldn’t have been about entertainment.