Direction: Edward Zwick
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo, Antony Coleman, Benu Mabhena, Anointing Lukola, David Harewood, Basil Wallace, Jimi Mistry, Michael Sheen, Marius Weyers, Stephen Collins
It’s probably safe to say that the big Hollywood “message movie” has fallen out of favor with most modern cinema-going audiences. The trend appeared to have peaked in the ’80s, when extravagant epics with grand political aspirations were all the rage — films like ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Out of Africa,’reds ‘, ‘A Soldier’s Story’ and ‘Dances with Wolves’ earned countless Oscars, critical hosannas and big box office. But ultimately, a string of commercial disappointments (‘Cry Freedom,’ ‘The Power of One,’ ‘Malcolm X’ among them) seemed to put a damper on Hollywood’s ambitions to tell sweeping political stories. As filmmakers turned to ever-more-fanciful stories and comic book adaptations to dazzle audiences, Hollywood all but abandoned what was once its bread and butter, and there doesn’t seem to have been a major A-list message flick seen in theaters in years.
So it was with high hopes for a rejuvenation of this lost genre that ‘Blood Diamond’ first hit theaters last Christmas. Produced on a budget of over $100 million, it had all the earmarks of the kind of prestigious, high-minded epic that Hollywood used to consider a sure-fire blockbuster. Tackling the controversial topic of the lucrative blood diamond trade that left Africa on the brink of a civil war, it featured an all-star, Oscar-decorated cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou), shepherded by a director, Edward Zwick famed for taking tough subject matter and making it palatable for the masses. But for whatever reason, ‘Blood Diamond’ failed to truly captivate critics and audiences, turning in a still-decent but unspectacular $56 million in domestic box office receipts.
‘Blood Diamond’ is certainly an ambitious effort, and is as much an intense (and unremittingly violent) thriller as it is a political polemic. Danny Archer (DiCaprio, with a thick Zimbabwian accent) is a mercenary, aware of the blood-stained trails of the diamond trade but simply too cynical to care. Soloman Vandy (Hounsou, again one of the most commanding screen presences around) is a farmer who will watch as his wife and child are kidnapped by one of the many bands of opportunistic local rebels who, covertly funded by the corporations behind the diamond trade, have no compunction against the robbing, raping and murdering of thousands in the name of profit. But after Vandy stumbles upon a fabled “blood diamond” worth millions, Archer will soon get wind of it and attempt to strike a deal. In exchange for the rescue of Vandy’s family, Archer will be led to the location of the valuable gem.
In the middle of all this comes American photo-journalistic Maddy Bowen(Connelly). She’s noble and ambitious, of course, but also a bit naive — virtues that Archer immediately pounces upon. Bowen’s journey will become a travelogue of atrocity, as she bravely endeavors to cover both the ravages the blood diamond trade is having on families like Soloman’s, and the inter-workings of the mercenary trade that Archer reluctantly agrees to expose to her. The optimistic climax, if wholly unbelievable, is probably all that Hollywood could get away with considering the grim subject matter.
The script and Zwick are most successful in the use of parallel to heighten the drama between the three main characters. Soloman will do anything to rescue the family that was torn away from him; Archer watched his family be butchered at a young age and now avoids any emotional attachment at all; while Maddy has completely forsaken the very idea of a family unit to pursue nobility in her career. Likewise, the film gets great mileage out of using their opposing ideologies (or lack thereof) to craftily straddle all political viewpoints on the blood diamond conflict, thus (potentially) deflecting any critical charges of bias. DiCaprio and Connelly in particular shine best when their characters’ butt heads with dialogue as warfare, tearing into each other like members of a high school debate team. Hounsou, conversely, seems to relish Solomon’s innate belief that honor comes not from political affiliation but from the simple charge to take action. It is when the film tackles these thorny topics in fiercely human terms that it manages to genuinely stir our passions and hint at resonance.
‘Blood Diamond,’ however, eventually feels narratively constricted by its over-reaching intentions. The movie is at once overlong at 143 minutes and thus too sprawling to work as a crackerjack thriller, yet not long enough to achieve the grandeur and scope of the best political epics. It’s a bit like a two-headed bulldozer that pummels you with intensely violent action cliches while trying to placate you with heavy-handed, didactic moralizing. Ironically, ‘Blood Diamond’ ultimately works best when it tones down the bombastic and tells, in simple terms, the story of a man trying to rescue his family. Perhaps had Zwick and ‘Blood Diamond’ tried a little less hard to tackle such a huge issue from all angles and just focused on its effects on one man, it might have achieved true greatness.