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Blood Diamond: Special Edition

The majority of Edward Zwick's filmography appears dedicated to culture clashes — at times, by the simple insertion of a white protagonist into a non-white society (The Last Samurai, Glory), but also in terms of a woman in a male-dominated military (Courage Under Fire), whites living in Native American lands (Legends of the Fall), and Arab-Americans in New York (The Siege). Therefore, it's not surprising that he would be drawn to Blood Diamond (2006), which utilizes a handful of characters to illustrate the chaos that erupts in Africa when warring factions compete over resources that can be sold to wealthy countries. Djimon Hounsou stars as Solomon Vandy, a simple fisherman of the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone who hopes to provide for his family, and in particular his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers), who he hopes will someday become a doctor. However, after Solomon's village is raided by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), he is separated from his family and taken to a diamond-mining camp under the control of Capt. Poison (David Harewood). After his capture, Solomon stumbles upon a large, pink diamond, which he manages to bury — it's only because of a government raid that he's able to hide it from Capt. Poison, but, once in jail, the commander publicly accuses Solomon of concealing the most precious diamond ever seen. Overhearing matters is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Rhodesian-born diamond smuggler who transports internationally banned stones from Sierra Leone to neighboring Liberia — a border bust has temporarily landed him in the Freetown lockup, he's on the hook to his former mercenary commander (Arnold Vosloo) for the lost goods, and he's been publicly disowned by his employers, the Van De Kaap cartel, who claim to have no interest in "conflict diamonds." American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) hopes the cynical Archer will make a good story, if not a better background source on the black-market diamond trade, although he gives her little regard. It's only after the RUF invades Freetown that Archer realizes he must get Solomon to lead him to the pink diamond, and use Maddy's influence to get them there.

A $100-million production shot over two years on multiple continents, Blood Diamond ranks among the most ambitious films released in 2006, and it even earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (rather than in the more-celebrated The Departed, where he was equally good). However, it failed to connect with audiences to the expected degree, taking in just $56 million domestically. Some might guess that moviegoers simply didn't think that a story of factional atrocities in coastal Africa would amount to escapist entertainment; it's also likely that others might not want to know precisely where some of their precious stones actually come from, and at what cost. However, the story (credited to Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell) balances the focus between the politic and the personal, and there's little question that Danny Archer is the deeply flawed antihero of the piece. As can be expected, DiCaprio fully invests himself in the part, from his regional accent and occasional patois to his skills at subterfuge and tradecraft. Archer may speak of leaving Africa someday, but it seems unlikely that he ever will, and before long we discover that he's not simply a white man in Africa, but African himself, simply one more element of the continent's complex post-colonial tapestry. Zwick's cameras effectively convey Africa itself as a land of contradictions: beautiful, desolate, at times ready to explode in senseless, bloody violence. The politics of post-colonialism may be too complex for any one film to navigate (numerous college history sections are dedicated to the problem), but we are led to understand that the remnants of European occupation, and the remaining ties to the West, have scarred the land much as the legacy of slavery has marked American culture. "People here kill each other as a way of life," Archer tells Maddy, and while she may claim to act on behalf of others, we see that she's equally compromised — ultimately, she's looking for a story and photos, which is a form of profit in itself. Why, then, does the West so often stand aside when African conflicts slaughter innocents? Perhaps because it's easy, at least when they don't make headlines. But even when it's impossible to ignore Rwanda or Darfur, non-intervention remains a guiding policy. These are the issues that Blood Diamond raises, which means that it treads a very thin line, taking thumbnail sketches of very, very large issues until it inevitably turns into an action-adventure, through various ambushes and atrocities, in search of the stone. Unfortunately, one of the film's larger reveals — that the majority of the world's diamonds are kept off the market in order to ensure that prices remain artificially high — is no secret all, perhaps even to those who shell out thousands of dollars for what amounts to a very old, somewhat cheap and common rock. For that, calling Blood Diamond "commendable" threatens to damn it with faint praise. It's more than that, to be certain — but it can't free the engaging storytelling from the horrific world it springs from, trying to be both a socio-economic history lesson and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at the same time.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's two-disc DVD release of Blood Diamond offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Disc One features a detailed commentary from director Edward Zwick, along with the film's theatrical trailer. Disc Two offers four featurettes, highlighted by the somber "Blood on the Stone," a look at the conflict-diamond trade (50 min.), along with "Becoming Archer" (8 min.), "Journalism on the Front Line" (5 min.), "Inside the Siege of Freetown" (10 min.), and a music video. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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