Diamonds are a rebel army's best friend. Specifically "conflict diamonds"—stones smuggled out of countries of war and used to purchase weapons and to fuel violence. In the late 1990s, members of several concerned organizations coined the phrase "blood diamonds" in an effort to raise public consciousness about the problem. The term is a fitting title for Edward Zwick's new action drama, a story about the discovery of one very large diamond and the shedding of a whole lot of blood.
Blood Diamond is fiction, but its setting is recent (and tragic) history. The year is 1999, and civil war is raging in the West African country of Sierra Leone. Rebel forces (the Revolutionary United Front) are systematically raiding villages, killing and maiming thousands of innocent civilians and making millions homeless. Many of the young boys whose lives are spared lose their souls, as R.U.F. leaders strip away the consciences and identities of children to turn them into ruthless soldiers. The conflict within the region is exacerbated by Western exploitation as diamonds flow out of the country (often just to be stock-piled in order to keep supply low and demand high) and arms flow in.
Djimon Hounsou (Armistad, In America, Beauty Shop) plays Solomon Vandy, a Mende fisherman trying to live a peaceful life with his wife and children in a remote area of Sierra Leone. In the opening scenes of the film, Solomon's village is brutally attacked and he is ripped from his family and forced to work for rebel forces in the diamond fields. When Solomon finds an extremely rare and valuable 100-carat diamond, he risks almost certain discovery and death in order to hide it. He is motivated not by greed but by desperation—if he can somehow leverage the stone's value, he may be able to obtain the resources he needs to find and save his family. One of the cruelest of his captors, a glowering sadist who goes by the fitting name Captain Poison, discovers Solomon burying his find. Before he can dig up the diamond (and kill Solomon) a government military raid lands both men behind bars.
Languishing in the same Freetown prison is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) a white South African mercenary who does the dirty work for Western diamond cartels by smuggling stones into the neighboring country of Liberia. Danny catches wind of Solomon's buried treasure and knows the diamond represents financial and person freedom. As soon as he is released from prison, he bails out Solomon as well. Danny promises to help Solomon find his family if he will lead him to the diamond and split the profits from its sale, and so the two men form an uneasy alliance.
In his efforts to locate Solomon's family, Danny is forced to enlist the help of Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an idealistic (and adrenalin-addicted) American journalist who has been pressing him to provide information for her story on conflict diamonds. Eventually the trio finds Solomon's wife and daughters in a refugee camp, but the stricken father discovers with horror that his 12-year-old son has been forced to become a child soldier for the R.U.F. Although Solomon is decimated by grief, he agrees to return with Danny to rebel territory to search for his son and locate the diamond.
Danny and Solomon's journey back to the diamond fields is complicated by ever-escalating violence, and much of the film is consumed with numerous narrow escapes from military conflict. Director Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Courage Under Fire) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (K-Pax) had every intention of making Blood Diamond a highly entertaining adventure movie, and the action is epic and relentless if sometimes rather implausible. (The film takes pains to explain how Danny's own military background makes him a gifted fighter and survivor, but there is no explaining how hundreds of bullets manage to just miss him.)
Still, amidst all the shooting and running and hiding, the film pursues numerous storylines. Maddy and Danny's mutual need and opposing philosophies keep them cycling through attraction and repulsion (and back to attraction); gradually their journey takes them (and the viewer) past their stereotypes of each other and into relationship. Solomon remains single-minded in his pursuit of his son, and although his character is rather one-dimensional, his purity is emblematic. We learn that it is Captain Poison who has captured Solomon's son, and we see—in some of the film's most devastatingly powerful images—how warlords use drugs, torture, humiliation and indoctrination to pervert young boys into killing machines.
Blood Diamond attempts not only to tell a number of stories but also to make a number of statements. The condemnation of the diamond industry for its complicity in smuggling and arms trading is obvious and expected; the film widens its target to include the exploitation of numerous African countries by pointing out that whenever something valuable is found, conditions get worse for the region. ("We better pray they never find oil here," says one old man as his village burns down around him. "Then we'll have real problems.") The West is under fire not only for its specific cases of corruption, but also for its general state of indifference. "This is what a million people looks like," says Maddy, as they approach a refugee camp teeming with humanity. "You might see 30 seconds of this on CNN, between the sports and the weather."
But the film does more than point fingers. It casts around for answers to the Big Questions—what makes people good, or bad, and if or how God is involved in the woes of the world. "I think people are just people," Danny shrugs, even while we watch the story carry his self-interested character to a discovery of some inner goodness. Later he confesses, "I used to wonder if God could ever forgive us for what we do to each other. But then I realized God left this place a long time ago." While Blood Diamond does not (and cannot) offer the definitive answers to these questions, it asks them in some compelling and legitimate ways.
What really makes Blood Diamond shine is the acting of its principles. Hounsou is a riveting presence; when he is overcome with longing for his son, his grief and desire are palpable. Connelly's Maddy is believable and magnetic. But this is ultimately DiCaprio's movie, and he makes his conflicted Danny a near iconic anti-hero. Naysayers doubted DiCaprio could handle the physicality of the role or the Afrikaans accent, but he inhabits the character beautifully and seemingly effortlessly. When the complexity of Blood Diamond's story and the breadth of its scope threaten to collapse the film, it is the force of the acting that keeps the viewer caught up in the momentum.
Blood Diamond is an ambitious movie that aspires to combine mainstream, swash-buckling Hollywood entertainment with insightful psychodrama and serious social statement. Some viewers will wonder whether heavy problems like genocide, Western exploitation and the tragedy of child soldiers should be explored in a film that also uses carnage and conflict as a source of entertainment. Blood Diamond is so relentlessly violent that it runs the risk of desensitizing its audience to the very atrocities it aims to decry. At the beginning of the film I flinched at every act of brutality, but by its end I had seen so much death depicted that the images no longer had the same impact.
Still, I left the film thinking about—and caring about—a country I had never seriously thought about before. And though it may be Blood Diamond's glossy, stunt-doubled violence that will put people into seats, the story it tells of some very real atrocities just might move some hearts.Discussion starters
- Solomon is a man of great integrity who hates to lie, but he will do anything to get back his son. Under what circumstances (if ever) is lying OK? How about stealing? Killing
- How should the Western world respond when it becomes aware of atrocities committed against civilians during civil wars? Should outside governments become involved
- How should the Christian church respond when it becomes aware of atrocities committed against civilians during civil wars? Should the church become involved? How should individual Christians respond when made aware of such atrocities
- At the height of the civil war in Sierra Leone (and with many other wars raging), American television was dominated by coverage of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. Why do you think foreign crises get so little coverage?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Blood Diamond is rated R for strong violence and language. There are near-constant depictions of death by guns and knives, and some particularly disturbing and graphic re-enactments of hands being severed. The language is frequently profane.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/14/06
Due to his riveting work in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio may be one of the front-runners for the Best Actor award at the Oscars in a few months. He's winning more raves for his leading role in Blood Diamond, the new thriller from Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai).
And the movie itself is winning some praise too for its challenging attempt to teach audiences about the evils of the diamond trade, and the impact of consumerism in wealthy countries on the lives of the poor in Africa. But critics aren't entirely impressed with how the film illustrates that problem. And Christian critics are again troubled by so much violence on the big screen.
Carolyn Arends (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "an ambitious movie that aspires to combine mainstream, swash-buckling Hollywood entertainment with insightful psychodrama and serious social statement. Some viewers will wonder whether heavy problems like genocide, Western exploitation and the tragedy of child soldiers should be explored in a film that also uses carnage and conflict as a source of entertainment. Blood Diamond is so relentlessly violent that it runs the risk of desensitizing its audience to the very atrocities it aims to decry. At the beginning of the film I flinched at every act of brutality, but by its end I had seen so much death depicted that the images no longer had the same impact."
And yet, the film made her think. "Still, I left the film thinking about—and caring about—a country I had never seriously thought about before."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "As the credits rolled and I walked out of the theater, I wasn't thinking about Leonardo DiCaprio's studiously performed accent, I was thinking about my own younger days of romance and how they were punctuated by the flash of a diamond solitaire. … Movies change the way people think. And intense, well-crafted, brooding, war movies do it more than most. … Blood Diamond screams out a protest that should be heard and well-heeded. How does it do it, though? With graphic, sometimes gratuitous images of violence, and obscene and profane language."
Mainstream critics are split over the film. Summarizing common complaints, Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) says, "If films were judged solely by their good intentions, this one would be best in show. Instead, gilded in money and dripping with sanctimony, confused and mindlessly contradictory, the film is a textbook example of how easily commercialism can trump do-goodism, particularly in Hollywood."