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Blog // Thoughts
January 27, 2007

Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond is, for the most part, a gripping, visually compelling and dramatically powerful film. The director, Edward Zwick (who directed the brilliant, if often over-looked 1989 film Glory), constructs a sense of terrifying realism as we are dropped deep into the senseless violence that gripped Sierra Leone before the turn of the century. We […]

Blood Diamond is, for the most part, a gripping, visually compelling and dramatically powerful film. The director, Edward Zwick (who directed the brilliant, if often over-looked 1989 film Glory), constructs a sense of terrifying realism as we are dropped deep into the senseless violence that gripped Sierra Leone before the turn of the century.

We meet Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) a fisherman, whose village is destroyed by the rampaging RUF (Revolutionary United Front) forces. His son is taken as a child-fighter, his wife and daughters flee into exile and he becomes a slave-worker in a diamond mine. There he discovers a massive pink diamond, which he hides in the hope of buying salvation for his family. Through a chance encounter with soldier/mercernary turned diamond smuggler, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) the story develops as a quest to return to mine, reclaim the diamond and save Vandy’s family. Along the way they meet a reporter, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who serves as a love interest and moral-counterwright for Archer, as well as taking a personal interest in Vandy’s plight. Supervening over them all is the ominous presence of Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), who is only roughly drawn. character, but serves as the military/ideological mentor for Archer, operator of a private mercenary army and manifests the Manichaean realism of the film with his use of the phrase TIA (this is African).

The cinematography (Eduardo Serra) is compelling and the original score (James Newton Howard) is very effective. Up until the final act, the film is every bit as good, if not better than any recent work in this genre. For me, this is DiCaprio’s best performance. Hounsou (who stole the show in Gladiator) displays a phenomenal emotional range. Connelly, who was cast against type in this role is convincing, especially in the photojournalism scenes.

For as long as the film remains focussed on Vandy and Archer’s journey, the role Bowen plays in helping them and the allegiance Archer still feels towards Coetzee, the film remains electrifying and dramatically potent. But, about three-quarters of the way through, it lurches badly and loses its power. The dual reasons why it does so are a case-study in the perils of contemporary cinema.

First of all, Blood Diamond is what I call an Ethically-Driven film. In his review, Mark Kermode adopted the neologism “issue-tainment.” Blood Diamond doesn’t just address the trade of conflict diamonds, but also the blood-thirsty nature of revolutionary conflict in Africa, the lack of post-colonial reconciliation, the role of private mercenary armies and the voyeuristic tendencies of western media coverage. It is a potent and worthy ethical cocktail.

But ethical discourse and good story-telling don’t always overlap. Blood Diamond starts by giving us an ethical context, the debate about conflict diamonds, but then immerses us in a very personal story about a few individuals trapped in an very specific, very local conflict. It’s when the film then pans back out, to reconnect with the broader ethical point it is trying to make, that it starts to fall apart. From that point, the film becomes lamentably melodramatic and preachy.

The first three-quarters of the film are so compelling because the ethical realisations arise as part of the narrative. We are shown what is happening to the lives of the characters. By contrast, in the final movement, the film tells us what the problems are, the characters fall away to become mere metaphors in the ethical debate. It’s an odd thing, but at precisely at final moments when I was supposed to care most for the characters, I cared less. It just felt contrived and forced.

The key ethical commitment of the film is that most of the conflicts festering in Africa are fueled by Euro-American demand for natural resources. It’s a powerful and seductive thesis, because it suggests that if only we would change our patterns of consumption that would fix their problems. It appeals to our sense of moral obligation, fits within our commitment to consumerism but also, it deeply paternalistic.

This limitations of ethically-driven approach are made more acute by our current fascination with “high-concept” film making. Many movies today are made so that the story canter-levers out from a very simple and tightly defined concept, often encapsulated in the title of the film. Snakes On A Plane, being the most clear example of this.

However, the high-concept of conflict diamonds are not the most interesting thing about this film. The devotion of Vandy to his family, the relationship between Vandy and Archer, Bowen’s moral struggles as a journalist and perhaps most of all, Archer’s trajectory from being a Rhodeisan orphan, through the South African Army, to being a Pan-African smuggler (not just diamonds, but also arms) are the fuel of the story. But, because the “high-concept” had to drive the film, we are forced to return back to the beginning, back the to the “issue” of conflict diamonds, back to droll political conferences and press events and back to the fall of the conceptual bad guys, the wealthy (western) Diamond merchants.

Blood Diamond is an important and worthwhile film. Not just because of it’s potential for water-cooler ethical debates or wear-a-t-shirt moral campaigns. There is something deeper going on here, about the nature of story-telling and film craft, about the complexities of moral realism, about the intractability of African conflict and about our tendency to sound-bite answers to the problems of the third world. It’s a great story undermined by the need for clear-cut ethical “solutions.”

[tags] Blood Diamond, Conflict Diamonds, Issue-Tainment [/tags]

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