Blood Diamond (2006)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Arnold Vosloo, Kagiso Kuypers, Antony Coleman
Directed by: Edward Zwick
I don’t know what it is about Edward Zwick films, I’ve never seen one I didn’t enjoy, but I’ve never seen one that I would consider truly great either. He seems to continually put out very good-but-not-great movies, which is probably true of a lot directors. The problem with Zwick is that his choices for movies suggest that he is focused on making a great, defining masterpiece, but for some reason, he has yet to do so.
As is the case with Blood Diamond, Zwick tends to tackle epic stories, often with a social commentary slant, usually drawing out strong performances and producing gorgeous looking movies. This was the case with The Last Samurai, The Siege, Courage Under Fire, Glory, and Legends of the Fall, all strong, possibly underrated movies, but for some reason or another, none have made a significant impact on the canon of American cinema, and Zwick has never received any directing nominations for his work. He is not considered one of the great directors of his generation, to the point where I felt the need to list his movies here because I don’t think he’s the sort of name whose resume most moviegoers would know by name recognition only.
This is not the movie to change any of this for Zwick, and, in fact, is a perfect example of what Zwick does well as a director, and what keeps him from being one of the greats. A message movie with awards ambitions (given its late year release date), Blood Diamond is a very good movie, tackling the issue of the sale and distribution of conflict diamonds and the human cost of the vanity of the well off in the world. The story follows Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman from Sierra Leone who is forced to work in diamond fields when revolutionaries invade his village, separating him from his family in the process. While in the fields, he discovers a priceless diamond, which he is able to hide just in time to escape from his captors. When diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Solomon and learns of his discovery, he convinces Solomon to lead him to the diamond in exchange for helping him find his family.
It’s a gripping story, a way to tackle the bigger issue by making those involved seem more human, and not just harrowing statistics. Hounsou is fantastic as Solomon, demanding your attention, respect, and sympathy in his struggle, while DiCaprio continues his strong work as the morally flexible Archer, drawing you into the machinery that allows terrorists and despots to fund their wars by selling their country’s diamonds to rich Westerners. Zwick captures the horrifying images of war and the senselessness of arming children with fully automatic weapons in the name of revolution, or chopping off their arms so that someone half a world away could have more bling. Zwick also manages to give us a tense, action-packed movie, following Danny and Solomon’s pursuit throughout the war torn nation for the blood diamond in question.
The problem comes from trying to blend the two movies together, the epic message movie with something important to say about how our consumption is costing lives and the action movie featuring two men fighting their way through treacherous hordes on a treasure hunt. The epic scope and Zwick’s tendency to produce overly long movies keeps it from being a true action thriller, but some of the action cliches of the chase, including Danny’s gun-toting romp through a field with bullets whizzing by, a completely needless romantic angle with Jennifer Connelly‘s American journalist character, and an overly schmaltzy ending that attempts to give the audience a warm feeling on their way out, instead of the anger and disturbed feeling they should be leaving with, keep it from transending into something truly special.
It’s these lighter touches that probably keep Zwick from making truly inspiring movies, which would be fine if he was making really successful movies. But, a movie like Blood Diamond was never going to reach a large audience, with content that makes too many people uncomfortable with what it might say about themselves. So why not go for broke and make the sort of stark, harsh, unforgiving movie the subject matter demands and that this movie was so close to being? Instead, Zwick comes just short, making a very good, and very good looking, movie that is more palatable for the larger audience it probably won’t get.