Released in 2006, Blood Diamond is set in the 1999 Sierra Leone civil war, and that war — and most particularly the diamond smuggling that funds the rebel army — is the focus of the film. It was directed by Edward Zwick, who directed the 1989 American Civil War film Glory, so it should come as no surprise that Blood Diamond does not shy away from either violence or from political overtones (indeed, it would be very difficult to broach the subject without some overtones.)
Leonardo DiCaprio is the star of the film, as Danny Archer, but it would not be entirely accurate to call Archer the protagonist. Archer is a diamond smuggler, one of the people who supplies the rebels with funds and weapons, all in the name of selling the diamonds to the Van De Kaap diamond company, who wish to maintain control of the diamond market. Though Archer grew up in Rhodesia, and then in South Africa, where he fought as a soldier of fortune, the conflict itself in Sierra Leone or anywhere else means nothing more to him than an opportunity for a score. And now he thinks he’s found the score of a lifetime.
This Valentine’s Day, the Van De Kaap company would like to remind you that diamonds are forever, and corpses are merely temporary.
While waiting in a Sierra Leone jail cell, Archer hears about a recent discovery in the diamond fields — an exceptionally large, clear, pink diamond. Knowing it would be worth a fortune, Archer not only buys his own way out of the jail, he also buys out the man who is alleged to have hidden the diamond. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is a Sierra Leone fisherman who had been taken captive by the rebels and forced to sift for diamonds. He does indeed know where the diamond is, but his primary concern is the safety of his family. He no longer knows where they are since they were separated, and unbeknownst to him, his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) has been taken by the same rebel army, where he is being indoctrinated as a child soldier. He has no interest in Archer, but Archer tries to convince him that he can (and will) help Solomon find his family — if Solomon will give him the diamond. The two eventually meet up with an American journalist, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who is looking to expose the story about the Van De Kaap connection to the blood diamond trade. At Archer’s instigation, the three begin working together. It winds up being a triangle of mutual usage, though Maddy would probably object to thinking of it that way; Archer is using Solomon for the diamond, Solomon is using Maddy and her connections to find his family, and Maddy is using Archer for his insider information on the smuggling trade.
There is, of course, sexual tension between Maddy and Archer, and surrounded by the idealistic Maddy (in the sense of her goals, though not her naivete) and the deeply moral Solomon (who has trouble even claiming to be a cameraman when he isn’t), some of their better nature rubs off on Archer. Not much — he’s still after the diamond — but enough to show he’s not completely amoral. This is contrasted with the captain of the rebels (David Harewood) and Archer’s former commander Col. Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), both of whom are intimidating in their pure sociopathy. While the film doesn’t wallow in the violence, it doesn’t shy away from it either, showing the war ravaging both towns and countrysides, and showing all the associated miseries of the war: child soldiers, mercenaries from outside, internment camps, and more.
It’s a lovely place when there aren’t any people around.
It would be very easy for this film to be too heavy-handed in its delivery, but it manages to not dwell upon any horror of war beyond how it affects the main characters. Thus, we see it all without feeling as though the film is stopping the plot to show it. (There are informational title cards at the beginning and end of the film, but this is as preachy as the film really gets.) There may be some degree in contrivance in that through Solomon’s family we see the enforced labor of the diamond fields, the brainwashing of the child soldiers, and the internment camps, but then again, this is a film about the horror of war; we’re not going to see anybody in a state of peace and safety in any such film.
The lead actors are all great in their roles. DiCaprio and Hounsou each earned Oscar nominations (Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively), and each deserved the nomination. DiCaprio shows, once again, how good of an actor he really is by playing this barely-conflicted diamond smuggler who can be charming even though he’s a mostly-unrepentant scoundrel. His constantly shifting accent — dependent on the dialect he’s using, so it seems to be an affect of the character rather than the actor — is also noteworthy. Djimon Hounsou has such screen presence that even when he’s on his knees with the rebel commander’s sword at his neck, you still feel as though he’s somehow more in control of the situation than not. And Connelly’s Maddy is an excellent foil to DiCaprio’s Archer, the perfect blend of world-weary experience and hopeful optimism.
Blood Diamond is a very well-crafted film, and unlike a lot of films with political overtones, it avoids being ham-fisted by also being a proper action drama. It isn’t a film that I’m likely to watch multiple times, but it was certainly worth watching.