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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The power of movies is that, by dramatizing certain events, they can give us a clearer understanding of things that we might otherwise have trouble truly grasping. That was the case for me with Blood Diamond. I had heard of “conflict diamonds” before and knew they were responsible for a lot of death in places like Sierra Leone. Yet the movie was able to put a human face on the problem, thereby deepening my comprehension of it. I could now see the personal ramifications, not just the political ones.

For those who may not know, “conflict diamonds” are gems that have been mined in Africa and traded for arms by rebels. The weapons have then been used in wars and revolutions, during which thousands and thousands of innocent people have been killed. Blood Diamond, set in 1999 Sierra Leone, centers around Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman whose village gets attacked by anti-government rebels. His family is taken from him, and Solomon is forced to work in the mines, looking for more diamonds. Anyone caught hiding one is killed on sight, but that doesn’t stop Solomon from trying when he finds a large, clear, pink diamond. He manages to bury it before the government raids the mine and hauls everyone away.

Solomon knows that if he can get back to the diamond (deep in the heart of dangerous rebel territory), he can buy his family’s freedom. While being detained, he crosses paths with Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a guy who makes his money trading diamonds for guns. He finds out about Solomon’s discovery and wants the gem for himself, believing it to be his ticket out of Africa and the corruption of his business. The two broker an uneasy collaboration to find the diamond and rescue Solomon’s family, including his son Dia who, like many children, has been brainwashed by the rebels and turned into a gun-toting fighter.

Jennifer Connelly plays Maddy Bowen, a journalist who cares deeply about the impact of conflict diamonds and wants to expose the problem to the world. She taps Archer as a source. Initially he balks, but later he decides that she can offer valuable assistance to he and Solomon both.

Blood Diamond is unapologetically political, but if you’re going to do this kind of thing, this is the way to do it. The film works as a message movie – it’s impossible to walk away mentally unprovoked – yet it’s also terrific entertainment. It’s got action and excitement, some moments of humor, and even a hint of romance between Archer and Maddy. The entertainment value helps the urgency of the message go down easier.

And what a powerful message it is. Although a title at the end assures us that steps have been taken to drastically reduce the number of conflict diamonds that are put on the market, it’s important for people to be aware of the problem because it hasn’t been completely eradicated. Most of us have probably bought or received a diamond at some point in our lives. Can you even fathom the thought that the one you have on, say, your engagement ring might have cost somebody their life? Or that the diamond earrings you bought for your wife this Christmas might have helped pay for an AK-47 that has been put into the hands of a 10 year-old boy? It’s horrifying stuff, and Blood Diamond serves as a powerful wake-up call.

I think the message hits home because, although the global aspect of the problem is not ignored, the story funnels it through the very personal experience of Solomon Vandy. We get to see how the conflict diamond situation takes a toll on one guy and his family. That approach drives home how senseless the whole thing is. How ridiculous that human life means so little to those who are driven by greed.

Djimon Hounsou is fast becoming one of my favorite actors. After scoring an Oscar nomination for his beautiful work in Jim Sheridan’s In America, he now delivers another award-worthy performance as the man determined to save his family. Hounsou brings a raw, primal quality to Solomon. A lot of actors might have played the character as overtly noble, or as a hero-in-waiting. In contrast, Hounsou plays him as a source of untapped righteous fury that is devastating when unleashed. There’s a moment where Solomon just screams, as though the sheer force of his anger will somehow cause his family’s kidnappers to let them go. The actor has several more scenes that deliver the same kind of gut-wrenching power.

Also good is Leonardo DiCaprio who, along with The Departed, is starring in two of this year’s best films. I like how he brings a sense of ambiguity to Archer. He’s not completely a bad guy, yet he’s not completely a good guy either. He makes his living in that gray zone, knowing that he’s perpetuating the problem, yet never quite bumping up against it personally. Because of this, you aren’t sure whether Archer is going to screw over Solomon and take the diamond for himself. DiCaprio has some nice scenes with Jennifer Connelly, whose character initially seems to be there only to verbalize the film’s political message, yet ultimately proves to be a significant factor in the story’s resolution.

Blood Diamond was directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), who gives it a gritty, you-are-there feel. He does a lot of things right, but nothing struck me as strongly as the scenes showing how the rebels brainwash children. A bunch of innocent kids are filled with propaganda, trained to shoot automatic weapons, and forced to kill their “enemies.” They are given booze, cigarettes, and drugs to keep them sticking around. These scenes are nothing short of harrowing. This corruption of youth is, perhaps, the most serious consequence of all. Blood Diamond doesn’t shy away from it; the film puts you face-to-face with the ugly realities and forces you to consider them. I won’t necessarily stop buying diamonds as gifts for my wife, but I will certainly ask some key questions of the jeweler before doing so. I’ll never look at a diamond the same way again.

( out of four)

DVD Review:

Blood Diamond was #9 on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2006. It is available on DVD in a single disc version that contains audio commentary from director Edward Zwick and the theatrical trailer. However, I highly recommend the 2-Disc Special Edition that comes packed with some superb supplementary features.

First up is “Blood on the Stone” – a fascinating hour-long documentary where African journalist Sorious Samura (who witnessed the Siege of Freetown firsthand) goes undercover in the black market. He begins by visiting one of the actual diamond mines and working there for a day. The conditions are so brutal and so disgusting that even the seasoned reporter is driven to uttering a choice expletive. Samura then shows how easy it is to smuggle diamonds across the border by traversing a well-established “secret route,” a symbolic stone in his possession. Hidden cameras show us how he sets up and attends clandestine meetings with potential buyers, both in Africa and in the U.S. (Samura has legally obtained diamonds to use in the reportage.) At one point, an American buyer plunks down an enormous pile of cash, happily offering that he doesn’t care where the diamonds come from or how much he has to pay to acquire them. This eye-opening piece not only shows that the transport of conflict diamonds is still possible, it also adds deeply to the theme of Blood Diamond itself.

Next up is “Becoming Archer,” a featurette showing how Leonardo DiCaprio trained for his role, becoming adept at fighting and weapons use in the process. “Journalism on the Front Line” focuses on Jennifer Connelly discussing real women reporters who put their safety on the line in pursuit of a larger truth. Both of these features transcend the usual self-congratulatory praising-of-the-actors that many DVDs give us; they instead demonstrate the seriousness of purpose DiCaprio and Connelly brought to their roles.

Also on the second disc is an informative backstage look at how the effect- and stunt-heavy Siege of Freetown scene was accomplished, as well as a music video by hip-hop artist Nas. In short, this is a DVD set well worth purchasing. You get one of the best films of last year, as well as an abundance of top quality bonus features.

Blood Diamond is rated R for language and strong violence. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Blood Diamond

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