My wife and children are away for three weeks on a home-schooling adventure. That makes it very hard for me to sleep or remain well. When I’m away or when they’re away, I don’t sleep. Maybe it’s lucky, maybe unlucky, but I caught some sort of nasty flu bug and was laid up for two days where I could do nothing but sleep. I think I’d rather find some alternate way of sleeping next time we’re away from each other. When I was finally able to get up, wash the stink off and move about, I rented a few movies; the kind that I can’t watch with the kids. You know, "guy movies."
Only one of these was remarkable: Blood Diamond.
Leonardo DiCaprio has talent far beyond the hype that surrounds him. His performance was so believable, as was his co-star Djimon Hounsou, that I felt like I was a fly on the bullet-riddled wall in the ironically named, Freetown, Sierra Leone where the film is based. As far as plot goes, it’s not that original. The Maltese Falcon, Treasure Island, Romancing the Stone, if you’ve seen one buried treasure movie, you’ve seen ‘em all. The subplots are where the real action is in this picture.
Vandy is a victim who just won’t lie down and be a "kafir." What he is most, is a loving Father. As the film opens, we see Vandy and his family waking before dawn to send his only son, Dia off to his first day of school. Dia finally "hops to" when his father threatens a beating. In third world countries, it’s perfectly okay to threaten children with a beating because they just don’t know better. In civilized countries we don’t ever do that. Solomon Vandy is just a poor fisherman who dreams that his son will go to medical school. [I have to say this is truly one of the dumbest plot devices of this film — I’ll explain later.] As Dia arrives home from school that same day, repeating his teacher’s promise of Sierra Leone’s future Utopia, Dystopia arrives in the form of R.U.F. rebels who proceed to either chop off the hands of males they capture or take them intact as slave soldiers and mine workers.
Solomon leads his family to escape, but doesn’t fare as well himself. After being captured, he is spared the use of his limbs so he can be used as a slave at the R.U.F-controlled diamond mines. His captors, excepting a few commanders, are just boys. They have been programmed via the use of drugs and propaganda to be killing machines. These aren’t your typical younglings. There’s something terrifying about twelve-year-old boys wielding AK-47 sub-machine guns.
In spite of the dire consequences (immediate execution) for withholding diamonds, Solomon finds a 100 caret pink, clear diamond, and buries it. He’s found out by one of the R.U.F. commanders while the mine is being stormed by government forces. Both slaves and captors are sent to jail. The government isn’t picky.
DiCaprio’s character, Danny Archer, a mercenary busted for trying to smuggle diamonds into Liberia, is in the same jail. The relationship between Archer and Vandy starts here. When Archer overhears the injured rebel leader demanding access to the stone Vandy has hidden, he recognizes his chance to finally be rid of his own slave-masters and plots to befriend Vandy and smuggle the diamond out of the country. His interest in Vandy is purely selfish.
Meanwhile, we are given a look at Archer’s world. He’s a mercenary whose recent arrest has upset his boss. The loss of the diamonds has put him on shaky ground (Han Solo anyone?). His boss works for a very powerful family in Europe modeled after the DeBeers family. When Archer meets a reporter, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), the two fill us in on the evil diamond trade which takes advantage of the turmoil to drive up profits.
Eventually, Vandy and Archer meet and Archer promises he will help restore Vandy’s family, splitting the profits with him if he’ll take him to the diamond. Vandy is not easily convinced. Archer finally uses irrefutable logic. "I’m white, you’re not. You’ll need a white man to negotiate the red-tape of government." Vandy finally succumbs but not before the R.U.F. has entered Freetown to clash with government forces. Vandy and Archer are literally caught in the middle. Their escape is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever seen on film and DiCaprio convinces us he could have been a soldier.
The rest of the movie follows the duo’s adventures. Archer is singularly focused on the diamond while Vandy’s focus is on restoring his family. This leads to some very dangerous situations and conflicts between them. Bowen agrees to help them when Archer promises to give her all of his contacts’ information and to go on record so that she can break the story about the evil diamond cartel back in Europe.
The R.U.F. rebels make bail and coincidentally Vandy’s nemesis has captured Dia, hooked him on heroin, brainwashed him and turned him into an indiscriminate murderer. The chance that Vandy’s family will ever be whole again appears unlikely. It becomes obvious that at some point, Vandy may have to face that his son is a lost cause. Like any loving father, he never accepts this for a moment even when doing so might save his own life.
As with many of these sorts of stories, Archer’s character seems to be seeking redemption. At the same time, the filmmakers project a message sounding very similar to the one proffered by neoconservatives who have hijacked this country’s foreign policy and who are constantly bringing up the various Sierra Leones of the world that need the U.S. to rush in and save them.
That message is: We need characters like Danny Archer in real life. They aren’t moral but they can be useful to us to kill the bad guys. Vandy, though extremely brave and principled, never once fires a weapon in this film. He is a "regular Joe" and regular Joes just aren’t cut out for war. But if they play their cards right, the Danny Archers of the world will save them. Just don’t bother the Danny Archers of the world with morality. They are such good defenders of the little people because they have adopted moral relativism, not in spite of it.
The filmmakers have another message: Corporations are evil. The way that this is delivered is ironic. Scenes of UN and government refugee camps turn out to be more totalitarian than the regular countryside where the R.U.F. terrorizes the population with apparent impunity. But, the turmoil is exacerbated because the evil corporation buys diamonds and arms both the rebels and the government. Apparently the government has also disarmed its citizenry so they are defenseless against the rebels.
What the film fails to note is that the remedy proposed, a moratorium on diamond purchases from war-torn countries, actually helps to drive up the price on the diamonds that come from countries like Sierra Leone and further increase the profits of the diamond cartels. One has to wonder if the European diamond cartel isn’t rubbing their collective hands in glee. "Oh no, don’t throw me in the briar patch!"
There is also a joke told in the movie. It is as out of place as would be a spaceship. In a remote village that has just been sacked by R.U.F. rebels, an old man talks with Vandy in his native tongue. He claims that things are just hunky dory, all things considered and then adds: "It’s a good thing they haven’t discovered oil here, then where would we be?" I would have appreciated it if this implausible conversation had never taken place. The filmmakers go out of their way to show us how R.U.F. rebels have terrorized every village in the country only to tell us now it could be worse, it could be about oil. Remember Young Frankenstein? "…could be worse, could be raining…." How apropos since the director’s cognitive ability appears descended from "Abby Normal."
Archer finally gains the redemption he seeks and sadly, Vandy’s family is restored, but not to their peaceful fishing village in Sierra Leone. Instead, Vandy, who improbably negotiates directly with the head of the diamond cartel’s representative, relocates his family to the most surveiled and unfree city in the world: London. We are given plenty of images of the marvels of "modern" society and its vast superiority to the meager existence Vandy and his family eked out back in Sierra Leone. Wealth is to always be measured in terms of monetary and material possessions apparently. A simple life, with enough food and a loving community is simply not good enough. You have to have a cell phone, big box shopping centers, big hospitals and big brother to prevent the R.U.F’s of the world from wreaking havoc.
Vandy’s exemplary character was formed with the help of strong family traditions and history. Tribal traditions stick with him and he presumably has passed this on to his son. So it is truly ridiculous and frankly not believable that he would seek to strip his son of these valuable traditions by sending him to medical school. It is also not believable that he would place more value on a society he has never seen, than the one passed down to him by his own father. By sending his son to school, he undermines his own tribe. A man who looks down upon his own traditions and work is not noble, he is covetous and unappreciative. Such people do not show a good work ethic and do not value basic principles. Vandy’s actions and solid character are at odds with his dreams. That is why this particular plot device is misguided and out of place in an otherwise great story.
In spite of these silly plot devices and conflicting messages I found the movie to be superbly done. It was fun to watch even though its politics are a bit heavy-handed and misguided. I would recommend it for the performances alone.
Rick Fisk [send him mail] is a 44-year-old software developer and entrepreneur. He is married, has 3 children and resides in Austin, TX.