Blood Diamond

| December 12, 2006

Imagine a world where River Phoenix didn’t die. A world where he held onto the Christian Slater role in ‘Interview with the Vampire’, and perhaps snagged Leonardo DiCaprio’s leading role in Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’. Would it be a stretch then to see a ‘Titanic’ wherein the young actor of his generation wooed Kate Winslet aboard ‘Titanic’? Would it have been a more palatable three-and-a-half hours? We’ll never know, but it would be interesting to consider what may have happened with young Leo’s career had he not shunned the spotlight with the misappropriated vanity projects that followed like ‘The Beach’ or ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.
Although the past four years have seen the actor in only five movies (three by Scorsese, one by Spielberg, one by Ed Zwick), they’ve been extremely high profile Oscar bids that have seen the actor not really at his best or worst but most compromised. I say this, because Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best actors of his generation. Yet, rather than go the Kate Winslet route and return unscathed and stronger than ever to an eclectic career path of Clementines (among others) or self-imposed exile and creative blockage I can only describe as Jamescameron-ian, Leo straddled the middle, both eschewing his stardom and desperately questing for a return to glory. The bag has been mixed, but in ‘The Departed’ he delivers not just a great performance, but a great “Scorsese” performance, one of stripped-away identity, constant struggle, and anguish. Admittedly it’s his third collaboration with Scorsese, so it’s possible that either the maestro learned how to appropriately push the actor or maybe ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker learned how to edit around the falsity, but what remains on-screen is startlingly raw and in the moment for a performer of anachronistic classicism more suited for William Holden.
This isn’t the actor’s only performance courting the Oscar this year, and he may end up out of luck this March because of ‘Blood Diamond’. Leo may be the rare actor who only truly excels when he is not aware of his chances for accolades; his ‘Gangs of New York’ turn felt overly-calculated, whereas as his Frank Abagnale is a charming evocation of a perennial runaway. Leonardo’s ‘Departed’ departure breathes palpably on the screen, whereas ‘Blood Diamond’ feels false from the get-go, the work of a man who wears his bleeding liberal heart on his sleeve, and Lord knows his calculated ascension to the podium this March will make the world a more understanding place, if not entertained.
God forbid. ‘Blood Diamond’ is not a terrible film by any means, but it brings to mind stale Stanley Kramer movies that were gilded upon their release and since faded into fossilized exile outside of their respective Oscar status. Edward Zwick has a habit of making big-minded, well-intentioned Oscar-candy of intermittent success depending largely on happenstance. A ‘Glory’ is as likely to occur as a ‘Last Samurai’, which makes him an undemanding artist reliant on the direction of the wind; and in ‘Blood Diamond’, the result is a screenplay with doubtlessly so many studio-conforming cooks in the kitchen that the result feels derived more from notes than even its own pomposity. Which is not undermine what is the rather brave undertaking of a legitimate crisis and not shifting the blame away from soulless corporate greed. Good for them. Make a better movie.
Clearly those involved (director/producer Zwick, his team of Marshall Herskovitz and Paula Weinstein, and doubtlessly Leo himself, with his own set of notes) took an active interest in the subject matter. So much so that Leo’s improbably Danny Archer ends up with more attention and care than Djimon Hounsou’s Solomon Vandy, the finder of the rare diamond and that which the story derives from. And the story is fantastic; Vandy’s family is separated from him in blinding violence, and in an astonishingly sequence that sees his younger son recruited into a ‘City of God’-style militia. So strong it is that it fails to mesh with the rest of the film. Vandy is forced to dig fruitlessly with his fellow prisoners for diamonds and accidentally stumbles upon a rare blood diamond, which he manages to hide. Vandy will become incarcerated, liberated, and taken on a roundabout journey to his family, son, and back into the Sierra Leone for the diamond.
I used this tense because although Vandy indeed was assisted throughout, he’s rarely seen as more than baggage, and though Djimon Hounsou screams to the heavens with his guttural anguish, there is nothing individualistic about even his sweetest triumphs. They are never first hand, but observed from afar by the white people with smiles: “Aw, we did something good for [ANONYMOUS BLACK MAN]” and only just enough to justify the narrative jumping forward. Rather, we are repeatedly shuffled back to Leo’s Danny Archer, an improbably action figure who skips between bullets like Indiana Jones with an air of Jack Ryan cynicism. In fact, his entire performance reeks of Harrison Ford with a similar disaster of accents. At the preview I attended, neither I or my friend could ascertain where exactly Leo was from; turns out, an area of South Africa where people speak in shitty South African accents (my money was on Australia, my friend had England; we were continents off, the both of us). Leo’s Archer is a safari-chic Ken doll with such a tragic past that he can only reveal it under the most earnest of fabricated situations to his blandly platonic love interest reporter played by a wasted Jennifer Connelly.
(Incidentally, while their relationship on-screen is completely forced and bland, I do think that Leo hit it off-screen, although I’m not entirely sure because she seems like the kind of girl who really had, like, this crazy, borderline offensively loose time in her late teens/early twenties where she probably fucked sleazy dude like James Woods, and it kind of carried on until her early to mid-thirties–she’s like 38, right?–when married Paul Bettany who knocked her up and she was probably tired of sex, so, it’s like, why not? I mean, the guy’s got like, seven hundred freckles. He’s got to hold a record, right? Anyway, so while I’m not as sure as I am with Cameron Diaz on ‘Gangs of New York’, Claire Danes in ‘Romeo + Juliet’, or that one girl in ‘The Beach’, I’m pretty sure Leo hit it with Jennifer Connelly, and seriously, after five years of Bettany-sex, what happened off-screen between them must have been un. Real. And more interesting than anything going on in ‘Blood Diamond’.)
I am thankful that Archer’s relationship with Vandy is largely antagonistic and self-interested until the end, but this does not diminish the aftertaste of a story being whitewashed for audiences, and jumps from genre to genre in the hopes of appealing to everyone rather than deciding what story it is really. The version I attended two months prior may be reedited for a stronger degree of technical success, but nothing can be done about Leonardo DiCaprio, who reeks false in execution and ideology from minute-one. I had assumed that ‘Blood Diamond’ would be pushed out of the Oscar race to spring, but for whatever reason it will be coming to a theater near you.

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