Glory concerned black soldiers in the Civil War, Courage Under Fire was about the aftermath of the first Iraqi War, The Siege about the threat of domestic terrorism. Even The Last Samurai was meant to be about warrior societies.
In Blood Diamond, Zwick tackles his timeliest and most politically potent subject yet -- the role of the international diamond trade in funding atrocity-minded rebels in the cruel, violent civil wars that have wracked African countries in recent years. The rebels illegally sell smuggled-out gems known as "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" to finance their wars. In this film's case, the setting is the West African nation of Sierra Leone circa 1999.
But when I say "international diamond trade," I mean not just the traditional players but also you. One of this movie's purposes is to wake up everyone to the social responsibilities of buying bling. That's pretty courageous of Zwick (and his screenwriter, Charles Leavitt) since it's not an easy, politically correct message. Liberals and conservatives alike both buy diamonds. For many people, a diamond is like a best friend.
And yet as courageous as that message is, Zwick has quite a struggle building a satisfying, affecting and -- most of all -- entertaining action-adventure film around it. On balance, he does so. But it's a shaky balance.
In particular, the depiction of violence in Sierra Leone is so relentlessly horrific that it's often difficult to watch, à la Black Hawk Down. It is, however, photographed with gusto by Eduardo Serra -- rockets fired from launchers fly through the air before striking low-level buildings.
Sierra Leone's actual rebels, whose war finally was stopped by international intervention several years ago, were notorious not only for wanton murder but also for making kidnapped children become their soldiers. The rebels also hacked off the limbs of civilians as an intimidation tactic.
Zwick's movie tries to graft a fictional story onto this -- a risky operation that's like trying to combine Hotel Rwanda with Romancing the Stone. His greatest asset is Leonardo DiCaprio, who in his second excellent "adult" performance this year (after The Departed) plays a diamond smuggler/mercenary who was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but raised in South Africa.
DiCaprio's Danny Archer wants to escape his life but makes his money selling rebel-mined diamonds from Sierra Leone to a British syndicate (seemingly loosely modeled on De Beers) that covers up its involvement in this illegal trade.
Wearing a wispy goatee and speaking in a believable and unfaltering accent, DiCaprio mixes rapscallion charm with violent edginess. Danny is warily nervous about the rebels, and with good reason. He's also trying to avoid his patron, the menacing commander of a South African-based mercenary army who wants him back in the fold.
Danny is smart, especially about the politics of diamond lust and Africa in general, and given some great dialogue by Leavitt (and Zwick). For instance, when he and a crusading magazine journalist with whom he has fallen in love (Jennifer Connelly, in too restrained a part for the magnetic excitement and sexiness she brings to it) quarrel over the morality of his work, he points out her own conflict.
"Girls all want a storybook wedding and a big diamond rock," he says. "Just like you see in (the ads of) the politically correct magazines." (Take that, Vanity Fair.)
When Danny is caught by the government and thrown into jail in Freetown -- Sierra Leone's capital -- he overhears that another prisoner, Djimon Hounsou's Solomon Vandy, has found a huge, pinkish rough diamond while working as forced labor in a rebel mine. Once freed, the two form a reluctant team trying to get through a dangerous land to find that diamond.
The tall, shaven-headed Hounsou, whose first major film role was in Amistad as the leader of a revolt by slaves en route from Sierra Leone to the West Indies, brings gravitas and a sense of idealistic principle to this pairing. He's a strong actor capable of withering anger, as when Solomon starts shouting in the jail.
But his Solomon is too much the innocent for the circumstances. For instance, when Solomon and Danny are hiding in underbrush at night as a rebel truck passes, Solomon stands up and shouts when he sees his kidnapped young son on it. No way he could really ever have made it through Sierra Leone acting like that. He's ultimately one too many dramatic conceits plopped into a story about a real war in a real place.
Yet at the same time, much is very affecting and thought provoking. DiCaprio and Connelly's relationship has tenderness as it develops, as well as a true sense of tragedy. A visit to a massive, dusty refugee camp is sobering to see, as well as a reminder of what's happening in Darfur and Chad today. Blood Diamond was filmed in Africa, mostly in Mozambique, and it captures the feel of a crowded, colorful city in a Third World country.
So the film has much to recommend it. However, its various parts, like Sierra Leone itself, often seem at war with each other. Grade: B