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Rated 3.02 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Exploiting the Stone
by John P. McCarthy

Africa is hot these days. Whether through celebrity adoptions or serious movies like Catch a Fire, The Constant Gardener and Hotel Rwanda, the film industry is doing its part to publicize the continent's travails. Blood Diamond endeavors to show how Africa's natural and human resources are being  exploited via the black market diamond trade. As responsible as it tries to be, the well-made picture is ultimately an example of misery chic. The point isn't "This is Africa" but rather "This is Hollywood."

There's always the risk of exploiting a subject while trying to bring it to the attention of a wide audience. Judging by his Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai  and Blood Diamond, director Edward Zwick is a competent filmmaker especially prone to falling into the cultural tourist trap. The hope that while providing entertainment you'll dissuade a prospective groom from purchasing a "conflict stone" is fanciful. The idea that the attempt itself exonerates your project from the charge of exploiting the atrocities and horrors is irksome.

In this case -- at the height of Sierra Leone's civil war in 1999 -- conflict stones refer to gems that have been mined under inhumane conditions by paramilitaries to finance their efforts to overthrow the government. When rebel forces overrun his village, a fisherman named Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is wrenched from his family. His wife and daughter become refugees and his young son is forced to join the insurrection and is molded into a gun-toting thug. Solomon is spared from having his hand chopped off in order to mine diamonds destined for the black market. Just before being arrested by government troops, he finds and buries a humungous pink stone.  

A Rhodesian-born mercenary-turned-smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) learns of the rock and after getting Solomon out of jail, offers to reunite him with his family in exchange for brokering the gem. Danny imagines it will be his ticket out of his native continent and the dirty business of war-making and war-profiteering. The third point of the movie triangle is crusading American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly). Maddy is on assignment for the magazine "Vital Affairs" and primed to blow the lid off the illegal diamond trade with an expose. She wants Danny to be her main source (and squeeze) and he agrees if she'll help Solomon retrieve his son and the diamond. With the rebels about to overrun the capital of Freetown, the three go in search of the stone.

Essentially a shoot-'em-up interrupted by exchanges and interludes taken from a think-tank symposium, National Geographic special or U.N. report, Blood Diamond tries to provide a clear-eyed view of things, but one that's still exciting and glamorous. "This is Africa" is how Danny and other old hands summarize the crazy way things work on the continent. Money and the barter system make this world go round and basic human rights can't withstand the pressure of market forces and the natural desire to escape the chaos. The fundamental problem is that, in the end, they don't withstand them in a meaningful way. The journalist gets her story. Solomon gets his family and tons of money. And Danny is set free. But the blood-stained continent remains the same. 

DiCaprio can't complain because he's exploited to flattering effect. He finally gets to play a real man. Even in The Departed, where he steals the show from some fine actors, he plays a character on the verge of manhood. Danny, while only 31-years-old, is both a wizened elder and an able soldier, a man of action seasoned by experience and harboring a simple, unromantic personal dream. Leo does a fine job and emerges a fully-fledged leading man.  

For his part, Zwick assumes the higher the body count the more potent the message, enflaming an already overheated scenario while sidestepping graphic violence that might add realism. To prove his seriousness, he denies the audience the pleasure of even a brief glimpse of Danny and Maddy sleeping together. In The Last Samurai, he traveled to Japan to tell us how the white man exploited Native Americans. It was a convoluted, sumptuous example of Orientalism. At least he's focused on genuine African characters in Blood Diamond, which retains some credibility by being pessimistic about Danny's fate and not mentioning American slavery.

Yet its authenticity is undercut by Occidental condescension in the form of an ending, orchestrated by the idealistic Yank journalist, in which the noble savage Solomon is trotted out in London to edify the world. Shining a light on Africa is a good thing for a movie to do. Blood Diamond is a polished piece of do-gooderism that tries to have its diamonds and wear them too.

(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated RB for strong violence and language.)

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