Blood From Stone
By Noel Vera

Blood Diamond
Dir: Edward Zwick (2006)

Edward Zwick has always been the champion of a kind of earnest, well-meaning, rather flatfooted moviemaking that demands one's respect more than it actually earns it, from "Glory" (1989, about noble black soldiers fighting in the American Civil War--well, actually about a white man leading a company of noble black soldiers in the Civil War), to "The Last Samurai" (2003--white man accompanying a company of noble Japanese warriors in the Satsuma Rebellion).

If there's an auteurist trend here--a signature to be found in Zwick's scattershot portfolio--it's in Zwick's wholesale and unashamed embrace of the hoariest melodramatic clichés, from the misunderstood officer in "Courage Under Fire" (1996) to the flawed white man redeemed by his charity work among the colored people ("Glory;" "The Last Samurai;" his latest picture "Blood Diamond") to The Beautiful Love Interest, Inspiring the Hero to Be a Better Man ("The Last Samurai;" "Blood Diamond"). Maybe the most fun I've ever had in a Zwick movie was the nutty "Legends of the Fall" (1994) where Zwick actually gives his overworked idealism a rest, aims for pure romanticism, and achieves sheer hilarity.

Brad Pitt plays an ubermensch romantic, a poet of the soul and Bowie knife who acts gallantly towards his brother's wife (they eventually end up rolling in the hay together) but is hard on neighboring bears, at least one of which he maims by cutting off a claw; he scalps German soldiers during World War 1 and spends most of his life wandering the world as a kind of Hemingwayesque adventurer, hunting anything that moves. By picture's end Pitt's character is killed by bear, a scene which Zwick treats as high tragedy, though it struck me more as a low comedy on karma.

"Blood Diamond" fits comfortably in with the rest of Zwick's resume. It's a mishmash of "Casablanca," "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," "Platoon" and "The Killing Fields," with a pint-sized version of the massive helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now" thrown in for good measure.

It has for its hero yet another of Zwick's Flawed White Men--Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white Rhodesian turned diamond smuggler--just begging for redemption; it has for Archer's companion The Idealistic Journalist, here named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, who naturally has to double as The Beautiful Love Interest); it even employs The Token Black, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) a fisherman (a Fisher of Men named Solomon--get it, get it, get it?) so noble and loving he seems barely human, an idol ready for us for worship.

You feel for Hounsou. Even after all the work he's done, all the films he's appeared in, he's still effectively trapped in the hold of that slave ship in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" (not a particularly admirable example of liberal filmmaking either), shackled to the clichés of black victimhood. Can't the poor man at least be granted a sense of humor? A sex life? Dandruff and bad breath?

John Boorman's "In My Country" (2004) suffered from plenty of flaws as well, but at least its black hero (Samuel Jackson, who I thought was compelling, playing an American journalist) managed to nail The Beautiful Love Interest (Juliette Binoche--who is French, so I suppose in the minds of most American audiences she doesn't count).

As for the script by C. Gaby Mitchell and Charles Leavitt--Mitchell's a relative newcomer, Leavitt, a more interesting case. Judging from his work in "The Sunchaser" (1996) and "K-PAX" (2001), Leavitt shares many of Zwick's sentiments regarding the white man but possesses even less of Zwick's already meager dramatic skills ("The Sunchaser" is memorable mainly for what traces of bravura filmmaking Michael Cimino (anyone remember him?) managed to insert in it, while "K-PAX" sounds suspiciously like a ripoff (never mind if it's an adaptation from a novel by Gene Brewer--the book too sounds like a ripoff) of Eliseo Subiela's "Hombre mirando al sudeste" (Man Facing Southeast, 1986)).

The two don't have the writing chops of John Le Carre, who in "The Constant Gardener" (2005) managed to outline the less-than-savory activities of Big Pharma (powerful multinational drug companies) in Kenya while telling a far more compelling story, of a British foreign service man investigating the possible infidelities of his murdered wife (Le Carre seems to operate under the assumption that we'd be overfamiliar with most of the clichés of the genre (the social-issue thriller set in some exotic country), and shapes--or sharpens--his narrative accordingly).

The result should be one of the worst pictures of the year; instead, it could easily be the best thing either Zwick or Leavitt have ever done--not high praise, I suppose, but higher than I would ever imagine giving them. It helps that DiCaprio in what should be a tired, unsurprising role gives an intense performance, electrifying the screen whenever he is present (when Connelly and poor Hounsou are asked to carry on without him they seem lost, uncertain, like party guests hoping the host will come back).

DiCaprio seems to do best when he's asked to rely on his natural brashness, and here, exuding a feline charm and charisma overlaid with an interesting accent he makes the predictable trajectory of his character development--from self-interest to self-sacrifice--interesting, even perhaps compelling. It's not a definitive portrait--I'll always remember James Woods hustling and weaseling his way through the South American jungle in Oliver Stone's "Salvador" (1986)--but it's good enough to make one sit up and take notice.

It also helps that Zwick and Leavitt are working with strong material--conflict diamonds, rocks used by rebel armies in Angola and Sierra Leone to fund their campaigns against legitimate governments. That we're seeing things we haven't seen before--rebels on careering jeeps firing into crowds to the beat of rap music; children trying to learn the day's lesson with their left hands because their right had been hacked off; older children being taught to kill, and to use drugs to wash away any sense of guilt and horror afterwards--this, more than the standard-issue sunsets and vistas of beautiful African landscapes (Discovery Channel on a bigger budget), makes the movie worth seeing, despite all the clichés.

I'd say: go see it, enjoy, and keep in mind that if you're ordering a stone (not that many Filipinos can afford them nowadays), you may want to check for bloodstains, so to speak. Lady Macbeth is a good role to play onstage, not in real life.

(For more information on Conflict Diamonds and The Kimberley Process--a certification system meant to identify conflict-free diamonds--you can go to

Note: First published in Businessworld, 01/12/07.
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January 19, 2007