It's possible to think of Blood Diamond as this year's Syriana. Both are star-driven geopolitical adventures that successfully marry action and message. Where last year's dealt with the dark side of the oil industry, this year's takes on the international diamond trade.
Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) sets his latest film against the backdrop of the civil war that wreaked havoc in Sierra Leone during the late 1990s. It opens with some of the most horrific scenes of carnage ever committed to celluloid. Moments after we meet a fisherman named Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) and his family, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front storm his village, gunning down innocent civilians, hacking the arms off prisoners, and kidnapping young children - including Vandy's son - whom they'll brainwash and turn into cold-blooded killers.
The father is forced into slave labor. Under the eye of a colorful psychopath played by David Harewood, Hounsou's character is put to work in a diamond field run by rebels. The stones are valuable to members of the RUF because they can be traded for weapons - hence the term "conflict stone." Mercenary types provide the arms and then smuggle the diamonds out of the country, at which point unscrupulous European importers certify them as clean and as having come from a neighboring nation.
The diamonds are valuable to the laborers because they represent the possibility of a new life far away, reunited with their families. When Harewood's Captain Poison catches a worker surreptitiously tucking a gem from the river into his mouth, he demands its return, and then shoots the man in the heart. A bit later, when Vandy pulls a pink rock the size of a bird's egg from the water, he's careful to avoid detection. Wrapping the rock in a piece of cloth, he buries it seconds before government forces storm the facility and throw him into prison.
Word about the miracle rock gets out while Vandy is in jail. The fellow prisoner who's most interested in hearing about it is a South African smuggler played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks like his own buff older brother - the actor has undergone a remarkable physical transformation in the brief period since Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can. Danny Archer is a former soldier of fortune from Zimbabwe who still refers to the country as Rhodesia.
The stone is valuable to Archer because it represents his ticket out of the cycle of violence that has defined his life since he was a boy, when rebels raped his mother and murdered his father. Once he's released, he uses his connections to spring Vandy, then makes him an offer that in the end proves impossible to refuse: In exchange for the diamond, Archer will help him track down his son and reunite with the rest of his family.
What begins as an uneasy alliance develops - predictably but nonetheless compellingly - into friendship. Of course, the process requires nearly two and a half hours to play out, and at various points seems doomed to certain failure. DiCaprio's character is charming, resourceful and good with a gun, but does not immediately inspire trust. Hounsou goes along with him because he has no choice. He assumes the white man means to rob him once he shows him where the diamond is buried.
Jennifer Connelly costars as a veteran photojournalist whose fate becomes entwined with theirs. She and Archer connect on an almost primal level at once, and even she suspects that he does not intend to keep his end of the bargain. The rock has a special value to her as well. She wants to expose the diamond industry's complicity in the conflict-stone problem, and sees Archer as her key to the names and bank account numbers that will give her story credibility and clout.
Yes, in Blood Diamond everyone is using everyone else. This is Africa, after all - Africa in the midst of civil war and a degree of violent chaos that approaches the surreal. The wonderful thing about Charles Leavitt's screenplay is the fullness of its vision. Hollywood rarely turns out large-canvas productions that perform this well on this many levels. It's all here: political message, history lesson, war story, romance, friendship, sacrifice, cynicism and nobility. The least human of his characters reveal themselves in moments of unexpected humanity. At one point, for example, Captain Poison confides to Vandy the reason he, too, wants the stone. "You think I am a devil, but only because I have lived in hell. I want out."
The characters played by Hounsou, DiCaprio and Connelly are drawn with even finer depth and detail, and their performances do justice to the writing and the subject matter.
For Zwick, the picture represents a return to form following the overly melodramatic, Eurocentric misstep that was The Last Samurai. Briskly paced, beautifully shot, and by turns shocking and touching, Blood Diamond is a film as rare as the gem at the heart of its story. Few are this close to flawless.