2006Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly
ith an estimated box office debut just short of nine million dollars and a production budget of—well, let’s just say a great deal more—Blood Diamond has by now slumped off the Most Anticipated lists and into the Hollywood waste bin of commercial failures. A graphic and scathing critique of careless consumerism just wasn’t the Christmas-season diversion busy shoppers were particularly in the market for. Good for Cameron Diaz and Jude Law cavorting in England, not so good for Leonardo DiCaprio’s amazing Zimbabwean accent.
Still, there are a lot of ways to classify failure (of which commercial is only the most popular), and to its credit, the film succeeds at beating most of them. It takes place in Sierra Leone, where the discovery of diamonds means civil war. Suffering from this is Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a man captured, separated from his family, and put to work searching for diamonds. Profiting from it is Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a mercenary and smuggler.
Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Solomon finds a huge pink diamond (eventually appraised at 2 million GBP, to give you an idea) and buries it. Through a series of equally unlikely coincidences, Danny finds this out and convinces Solomon that showing him where he hid the diamond is the only way to reunite with his family. Danny calls on his connection to an American journalist named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) to get them press credentials allowing them to travel. In exchange, he promises to give her proof of ties between an English diamond company and the illegal “conflict diamonds” (the purchase of diamonds from a conflict zone like Sierra Leone was illegal, as buying them creates incentive for continued fighting over those resources).
All this narrative exposition is executed, to be honest, sloppily. To give us the full sense of how dangerous any situation is, the film prods its characters to stare down death and achieve near-miraculous salvation just a few too many times. The film is also tonally inconsistent, reliant on a vast array of clichés and conventions, and weirdly unconcerned with how many people have to die to save its main characters. And while technically competent, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is an issue with a story built around it—and not the other way around.
A failure of innovative and engaging filmmaking? Yes, but there’s something to be said for a mega-budget chase movie whose primary villain is the global economic forces of demand that keep a nation killing itself to supply. Maddy might bring down a major diamond company with her article, but the movie isn’t cowardly enough to see them as holding ultimate responsibility. “The world wants what we’ve got,” says Danny, “and they want it cheap.”
What the film is, then, is a triumph of conscientiousness and a failure of imagination. To its artistic credit, performances are great all around. DiCaprio carries a lot more street cred as a hardened and unprincipled smuggler than I would ever have imagined (but I was in middle school when Titanic came out, so…). Hounsou has the awards buzz and probably deserves it; he performs fantastically with the film’s most brutal scenes. Connelly has a regrettably throwaway role and some horrible dialogue (“three out of five ex-boyfriends polled tell me I enjoy being in a constant state of crisis.”), but she’s Jennifer Connelly so we don’t hold it against her.
The good performances and overall decent filmmaking don’t mean the movie’s great, and I suppose it isn’t. It’s good, it’s better than adequate. But film has become such a pervasive medium that I can’t advocate the merits of any particular film be weighed solely by how it advances the art of the medium. When someone can say something that’s urgent, responsible, and important—when someone can cast marquee stars in a movie about fairly complicated global interdependence that might make everyone in the audience feel bad about themselves but still needs to be heard—and when someone is bold enough to use the widest, the most captivating, and the most expensive forum to say it, it’s an admirable thing.
To say it truly brilliantly, well, that would be better.
Blood Diamond is currently playing in wide release.