Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 18, 2006 9:18 am 
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Damn the accent – full speed ahead!

Blood Diamond gathers many strains, but the two main ones involve self-styled Rhodesian mercenary Danny Archer (Leonardo di Caprio) and fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou). Vandy’s village is wiped out in the violence of Sierra Leone's civil war and, separated from wife and children, he's spared on-the-spot execution but forced to work in a diamond mine – in the open air, but guarded by men with guns who shoot to kill. Somehow nonetheless he finds a huge "pink" diamond that he manages to hide. In the chaos of the war Solomon’s son Dia gets turned into a boy soldier. The minute Solomon hides the big diamond he's imprisoned, but Danny gets him out because word of the find has spread through Soloman's brutal boss, also in the jail. Danny and Solomon are now linked: only Solomon can retrieve the diamond, but he needs Danny to get it to the buyers. The two men have many adventures together in which Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connolly) a journalist, becomes involved because she can get Solomon and Danny into and out of places through her press credentials and she wants a payback from Danny for her help: names and lines of power in the diamond smuggling business he's involved with.

Edward Zwick’s film is quite simply an adventure of character – with a background of violent African civil war and corrupt economics in which the African people are exploited by the rich white men who still run the world. Danny is a hardened man who has seen everything and shifted from any pretense of fighting for politics or ideas to things. He uses a weapon when he needs to, which in a country under civil war is pretty often, but smuggling gems to Liberia is his focus now and he does it for an unscrupulous company that deals in “conflict diamonds” -- ones with an ugly background because they’ve been traded to buy weapons. "In America it's bling bling," Danny says, "but over here it's bling bang."

Di Caprio’s character is a burnt-out case at thirty-five, stripped of values but with enormous toughness, resiliency, and survival skills. He has a noble, stoical finale worth of the best Hemingway hero, as played by Bogart or Peck or another of the great Hollywood male icons. Still short of thirty-five, playing a role so rich and attractive any actor of his talent would have been a damned fool not to take it on, Di Caprio shows here if he hasn't before that he has left the reedy boy behind and grown definitively into adult parts. If the actor’s accent is obvious or inaccurate as some say, it just doesn’t matter. Such comments must be based on the trailer. The action doesn’t give you time to think about accents.

Di Caprio's face is lined, with a wry grin that reminds you of Orson Welles. He’s forever puffing on a cigarette ("They’ll kill you.""Only if you live") and swigging liquor, able to catch and kill and skin a monkey for food at the drop of a switchblade. He and Jennifer have a tough-guy tough-gal romance. Both their characters are without illusions. Danny resists Maddy's prying, Maddy his manipulations. Each comes to admire the other’s panache. (“You were good today.” So were you.”)

As Solomon Vandy Hounsou is the noble African, loving but heroically strong, able to endure anything to reunite with his wife and kids and tame Dia into becoming a son again and not a boy killer. Breathless as its narrative is, Blood Diamond has plenty of intense emotional encounters; its ability to find the time for both action and feeling is what makes it a great movie. The most emotionally powerful moment is nothing between Danny and Maddy, but the time when Solomon begs his son to accept him again and return to being a boy in a family.

As for critiques of the film as demeaning to Africans or inaccurate about its economic and political background, they smack of the foregone conclusion, and show little attention to what's in the film or what it's trying to do. If you want a documentary you will go elsewhere; you'll be lucky to find as unbiased and wide-ranging an analysis, or as palpable a picture of what Africa at war today is like. The focus here is on how men and women function under pressure. The specifics of background are intelligent, but not the main point.

The picture also has balance in the way it informs us but does not lecture us. The boy killers and conflict diamonds and mercenaries, the burned villages and amputated hands and the million-strong refugee camps that the world forgets, the smuggling and the diamond companies that buy up and store gems in vaults to keep up the price of what they sell (that will include the huge one, which they pay only two million pounds for) – these are all facts that enrich the background of an intelligent and up-to-date but essentially old-fashioned adventure story. This feels like a real movie. Call it a popcorn movie. It’s not art house stuff. But like some of the best cinema or drama or literature, it can be appreciated and enjoyed on many levels, by audiences ranging from naïve to sophisticated. It’s very well made and very well conceived. Good for Zwick and everybody concerned!

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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