It will be fun to see which stars are willful and/or clueless enough to wear diamonds to this year’s Academy Awards if the political action melodrama Blood Diamond—about the carnage surrounding the mining of the gemstones in Sierra Leone—racks up a lot of nominations. Forgive me for opening on such a superficial note, but the truest measure of the worth of the movie—which is both excitingly well made and dispiritingly formulaic—will be in what trickles down: whether strong box office plus Leonardo DiCaprio’s earnest proclamations on Oprah plus the opportunistic shame of Hollywood goddesses can disrupt Tad and Suzy’s engagement-ring expedition and Dad’s anniversary surprise for Mom. “People back home wouldn’t buy a diamond if they knew it cost someone a hand,” avers the film’s crusading journalist (Jennifer Connelly), and the director, Edward Zwick, is not above supplying the people back home with a close-up of that hand getting whacked off by a machete.
Zwick is now something of a biracial political-conversion melodrama specialist, having presided over the much weirder The Last Samurai—in which the guilt-racked Indian slayer Tom Cruise was dispatched to Japan to wipe out another indigenous culture but found, instead, his Inner Buddha. In Blood Diamond, the sinner ripe for enlightenment is Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a native of Zimbabwe who makes a point of referring to the country by its old colonial name, Rhodesia. A former Angolan mercenary, Danny now (the film is set in the late nineties) smuggles Sierra Leone diamonds into Liberia in return for guns and rocket-launchers, which go to the rebel army (the RUF)—the army we’ve seen mowing down women and children, training young boys to be rapists and mass murderers, and conscripting hardier men to work in the diamond fields. One of these conscriptees is the Mende fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who finds—and manages to hide—a whopper of a diamond before somehow (don’t ask) landing in jail across from Danny, who somehow (don’t ask) gets wind of the potential mother lode.
The rest of Blood Diamond centers on the odyssey of these two very different Africans: the sleazy white man desperate for a big score to square his debts with a mercenary colonel (Arnold Vosloo, who speaks with the clipped cadences of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula) and the Solomonic black man determined to find his teenage son (Caruso Kuypers) before a sadistic RUF captain (David Harewood) with an eye patch turns him into a mindless raping and pillaging machine. Zwick and his screenwriter, Charles Leavitt, are conscientious about stamping out the mismatched-buddy-movie fires when they flare up. They keep Danny a cad and Solomon resentful over his country’s long history of exploitation for its natural resources. Connelly’s Maddy Bowen comes along to pump Danny for the details of his smuggling operation and, just as important in the scheme of things, the source of his hurt—anything to combat his self-serving fatalism.
Given that the movie doesn’t have a single narrative surprise—you always know where it’s going and why, commercially speaking, it’s going there—it’s amazing how good Blood Diamond is. I guess that’s the surprise. Amid the predictable picturesque sunrises and sunsets are some extraordinary chases through tropical forests with huge, radiantly green leaves (the cinematographer is Eduardo Serra); the misery in the shantytowns and refugees camps is tactile; and the scenes in which the RUF captain works to purge Solomon’s son of his humanity are chilling. Hounsou is a bit totemic for my taste, but the moments in which he rages at the loss of his son have a preternatural power, and Connelly is such a smart, sane, unhistrionic actress that she almost disguises the fact that her character is a wheeze.
It’s DiCaprio’s movie, though. More and more, we’re getting the measure of him: When he plays earnest male ingenues, as in The Beach, Gangs of New York, and The Departed, his face looks heavy and slack, and there doesn’t seem to be much going on behind that big brow. But when he’s cock of the walk, he’s a star. His Danny is in the mode of his characters in Titanic and Catch Me If You Can—a wiry, resourceful con artist who’s most fully alive when he’s backed into corners and must invent a way out. His lightness here keeps Blood Diamond from getting weighed down by the horror of its subject.
Whether it should be weighed down—that’s another matter. As I watched the senseless brutality, the shooting of mothers and children as they fled, I was torn up, divided. I thought, Why do I need to see this? Then I thought, This happened in Sierra Leone and is still happening in parts of Africa—I need to see it. Then I thought, If I need to see it, I need to see more than a sneering villain with an eye patch. I need to understand how this man—and the people under him—become the monsters they are. That’s what you don’t get in Blood Diamond, what you don’t get in even the best melodrama: insight. After we stop buying blood diamonds from conflict zones, what then?