By Noel Vera
Dir: Edward Zwick (2006)
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.
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,
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).
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 http://www.diamondfacts.org/).
First published in Businessworld, 01/12/07.
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