' ' Cinema Romantico: Blood Diamond

Monday, December 11, 2006

Blood Diamond

This truly is the most wonderful time of the year. In less than 7 days, back-to-back, I saw "10 Items or Less" and "Blood Diamond" - which will wind up being two of the best movies of the whole year. Oh, 11 months of cinematic crap is but a small price to pay for the movie-going treasures of December.

"Blood Diamond" is an epic, action-packed story concerning the brutal "conflict diamond" trade in the African nation of Sierra Leone set against the backdrop of that nation's Civil War in the late '90's. Now such subject matter would usually lead one to believe this is one of those so-called "important" films. You know, the kind that usually leads to a multitude of Oscar nominations. Well, it may be "important" but if the characters and the story don't amount to anything I personally could not care less how "important" it is.

Well, guess what? The characters and story work spectacularly in "Blood Diamond".

The movie does not wait long to get going. Djimon Honsou is Solomon Vandy, an African fishermen, whose family is taken prisoner by rebels while he is pressed into service as a slave in the diamond trade. He finds a particulary massive diamond which he hides and then buries. Shortly after doing so, the government raids the mining camp and places Vandy in jail. While there, South African mercenary Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) overhears about this supposed diamond Vandy buried, gets him out of jail and forces Vandy into a partnership to get this diamond. At the same time, American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) is on the hunt to break a story regarding the realities of the diamond trade and needs Archer to provide neccesary info to give the story legitimacy. While AT THE SAME TIME we also follow Vandy's young son who is essentially brainwashed and enlisted as a rebel soldier, willing to turn against his father if need be.

Okay, everyone take a breath. You good? You with me? Let's press on.

Simply put, DiCaprio's Danny Archer is one of the richest, most complex movie characters to come along in quite some time. One of the terms that gets tossed about most often when discussing screenwriting is "arc". You know, a character's emotional journey through the script. The character's trek from Point A to Point B. They start off thinking one thing but wind up thinking something different. But as tossed about as this term is most movies these days dispense with any arc at all. The movies that do employ arc rarely do so in an effective manner. An arc is something that should an encompass the entire movie (think Jake Gittes in "Chinatown") but anymore arc is spread out over 3, maybe 4 scenes - sometimes even less. Characters come to life-altering decisions over the course of a single scene. The steps of an entire relationship are condensed into a lone montage (God help us). I don't know if this is because the audience has no patience or because the filmmaker thinks the audience has no patience but this is now the norm.

The makers of "Blood Diamond" trust that we have patience. Danny Archer breaks the mold. His arc sums up the definition of the term. It is gradual. It runs its course over the movie's whole running time.

Will Archer help Solomon find his family? Will Archer help Maddy get the information she needs? What lengths will Archer go to in order to get this diamond? The movie presents choice after choice to the character - the stakes getting higher with each of them - and each time he makes a decision his character deepens and his journey intensifies.

As amazingly drawn as the character is, DiCaprio has to give a performance to match. And he more than holds up his end of the bargain. I think I wrote on this very blog a few months back that DiCaprio's performance in "The Departed" may be the best he's given. Uh, allow me to revise. DiCaprio's performance in "Blood Diamond" may be the best he's given. Oscar nomination gods, are you listening?

I, of course, can't say it's a perfect film. Perhaps it gets just a tad too preachy at parts and the epilogue maybe wants to deify a certain character just a bit. The characters of Solomon and Maddy aren't quite as complex as Archer. Honsou has made a career out of playing noble souls with a single-minded focus and nothing much changes here but his emotional ferocity in every scene sells it. And as written the crusading journalist does not really expand beyond the usual archetype but Connelly re-proves her considerable talent by lending the character fire and depth through her performance.

But why the hell whine about little things like that? Getting one multi-dimensional character in a movie these days is a victory. But getting a character like a Danny Archer is more than mere victory. It's a triumph. Therefore I'm urging you to drop whatever plans you may have had this evening and go see "Blood Diamond" instead. When Archer's moment comes - after all he's been through, and after all you've been through with him - it will be as rewarding a moment as you're likely to ever have inside the glorious darkness of a movie theater.


Anonymous said...

I saw this movie last night, and was a bit surprised by your take on it. I'll agree with you that, sure, DiCapricio does a fine job as the lead, but to say this was an interesting character study is hmmm...a bit misleading. The role he plays of the narcissistic "soldier of fortune" with the (eventual) heart of gold is as old as Casablanca, and I can't name a single surprise in this movie. From the first scene in the bar you know that DiCapricio will end up rescuing hero and more than likely die heroically, probably in the arms of Connelly. Perhaps he seems nuanced only because his costars are such extremely stock characters (the naive, but crusading American journalist who doesn't "get" the natives; the noble, but simple, African just trying to protect/rescue his family who needs the help of Westerners to guide him through the "system.").

What I usually find unbelievable about characters like DiCaprio is that we start out with this very violent, immoral, but yet intelligent character that is supposed to change through (inevitably) the love of a good, if naive, woman and suddenly gaining the empathy to see through the eyes of the (also inevitable) suffering child (we even had crippled children singing in a church for god's sake). I just don't buy it. We (the audience) are supposed to be touched by these things, and so are meant to think that our hero will be as well. But this person is nothing like us, and probably won't respond to these common liberal American heartstrings tuggers with much interest. He's thirty-one--I'm sure he would already have a well-developed enough character that these things wouldn't be able to easily touch him. And fundamentally, that is the problem. We are supposed to identify with the amoral characters like DiCaprio by supposing that they only seem amoral but, like us, will still respond to trite moralisms.

Plus, as usual, the plot holes surrounding the MacGuffin are a bit transparent. The way everyone immediately becomes aware of this diamond because of the rebel leader in the cell, to think that some London banker will promise to buy it sight unseen, and then the ridiculous low amount he ends up paying for it. C'mon, I bet it cost about 2 million pounds for the Colonel to bomb the mining camp. And why does the Colonel care so much anyway? That would be pocket change to him.

The recent glut of African explotitation movies to be released in the States (see: The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda) all seem generally problematic in this regard. They are well-intentioned in their desire to highlight the injustices that exist on the African continent, but always view these problems through the eyes of the white (usually helpless) Westerners who just don't "get" the mystical nature/problems of Africa (okay, Hotel Rwanda is an exception, but even here the problem is dramatized by a Rwandan who is accused of thinking he is white). Unfortunately, movies about our inability to understand something (unsurprisingly) don't help me understand it any better--and so feel superficial. The deus ex machina endings these movies all provide don't provide answers. These movies are fundamentally about the problems of Africa, like violence, poverty, and disease, but these movies seem fairly clueless about either the roots or possible solutions of these problems.

What is interesting about these movies is the conflicted nature of the entire project. They are all uncomfortable with the entire Westernization project of Africa--whether it is that done by the greedy corporations to make money, or done by idealistic Peace Corps types, but yet making a movie about Africa for distribution in the States is participating in the very process with which they are uncomfortable.

Wretched Genius said...

Oh please. "Tears of the Sun" already summed up the whole struggle for us: all the problems of Africa can be solved by Navy Seals.

Anonymous said...

I will certainly agree that it is yet another film attempting to examine the plight of Africa through the eyes of a white person (or people) while the African himself is given one shade of characterization and no more. I’m also willing to bet this is in part because most American studios would be fearful of how much of an audience they would get if the movie were told through the eyes of an African and without someone with whom American audiences could "connect". But I think the best way to address any situation in any African nation would be for an actual African filmmaker to document it. Unless an American can embed him or herself in Africa for an extended period I don't if we can accurately convey what is going on there. (Perhaps our three documentarian friends who are currently there can help to change this.)

In regards to the DiCaprio character, I am of the opinion that - with there being thousands upon thousands upon thousands of films for all to see - that essentially all characters now can be considered "stock" characters. What can we do that has not already been seen to some degree? Personally, I also have no problem with knowing where a character is going so long as his or her journey to that place is convincingly portrayed. What I want is a character who never makes a decision that rings false and whose (one might say inevitable) transformation is gradual and not jarring. I felt DiCaprio's character fit the bill on both accounts. Finding a character anymore who does can be a chore.

Wretched Genius said...

Y'know, after "Glory," "The Last Samurai," and now "Blood Diamond," I think that maybe the only way director Edward Zwick is capable of telling a story about the plight of an opressed group of people is through the eyes of a white guy.

Anonymous said...

Good call, Brad. That honestly hadn't even occured to me.

Anonymous said...

My complaint is not really that these movies are told from the perspective of white people—I’m white also, and so can hardly criticize someone else for telling a story from that perspective. What I dislike is that ultimately they are shallow movies—movies that have few, if any ideas. Yes, they dramatize injustice, which is worthwhile I suppose, but it seems to me all they say is “Look at this bad thing happening,” while trying to not commit to an actual political or economic perspective (beyond the simplistic “corporations are/can be greedy” cliché) that attempts to explain these injustices. As I said before, right now we are being given a vision of the African continent as full of violence, poverty, and sickness, but these movies seem to show away from root causes or solutions. It is like watching a murder mystery about a Jewish person murdered during the Holocaust that never mentions the Nazis. Something is missing.

As for DiCaprio and stock characters—I agree with you that it is near impossible to have a truly original character in contemporary movies. And it is surely no insult to be compared to Rick Blaine. So perhaps we’ll just have to disagree that his portrayal of Danny Archer was internally coherent.

So here are the reasons I didn’t find the character interesting. As I said before, I found it unconvincing that the sort of easy cliché’s that are supposed to appeal to the average American moviegoer (the crippled children, the beautiful woman, the religious ritual, etc.) would have the same effect on Danny Archer now. These images are new to us, and so we find them shocking, but he has been seeing this kind of nightmare all his life. Why does it affect him so much now? We are not really ever told. Plus, Jesus, that last scene with him was painful in its hagiography.

I am a bit surprised that you don’t think it is a problem that we are able to see what is going to happen to a character from the very beginning. This is the thing about James Bond movies, right? We know what he’ll do in any situation, and we know how the movie will end. That’s no problem for a fluff movie maybe, but it seems to me that an interesting story will place their characters in a situation that provides tension, i.e. where the character is in a real dilemma—where she has act like a real human being and make choices, rather than as a stereotype that will always do as his nature demands.

Why is Casablanca so good? At least in part because we really don’t know what will happen between Bergman and Bogart. Right? This is the famous story about how even when they were shooting the movie they didn’t know if she would stay in Casablanca or not (at least until the end). Or think of You Can Count on Me (which if I remember correctly is one of your favorites as well). Partly why it is such a satisfying movie is because there is real tension—we don’t know if Mark Ruffalo will fuck up his relationship with his nephew. We can all see that Ruffalo is pretty irresponsible, but we still wonder if he’ll be able to get his act together (the normal story arc of a movie like this where the irresponsible bachelor becomes a good bourgeois citizen by being forced to take care of some kid who of course doesn’t fit in with his peers: see About a Boy, The Kid for e.g.).

And see, in Blood Diamond DiCaprio always does exactly as we’d expect him to and is never placed in a situation of real tension between the plot and the character. So yes, he sells the character, it is just ultimately not a very interesting story about that character.

Anonymous said...

If you guys are really interested in a deeper view and solutions to problems in Africa, especially concerning child soldiers, you should check out the "Invisible Children" movie. Mr. Romantico, I think you would really connect with the writers because they were just fresh out of film school students that were looking for adventure, but created an amazingly fresh and real documentary. The 3 guys that made it show the film nation wide and will come to any school, church, or theater and answer questions about the film. Check it out at http://www.invisiblechildren.com/