Blood Diamond is a political thriller with a conscience that veers close to being slick commercial exploitation of a serious subject matter. It never crosses that line but other flaws keep it from being perfect, namely an overly complicated ending that seems to drag out the second half of the movie. The film’s virtues, however, more than compensate.
In 1999, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is a fisherman in the African country of Sierra Leone, which is in the middle of a civil war that is being financed to a large extent by the smuggling of conflict diamonds. One day his village is attacked by soldiers of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Solomon is able to protect his family at the expense of his own freedom. He is forced to work as a virtual slave in the primitive RUF diamond mine, where any attempt to keep a bit of the product for yourself is punished with a bullet to the head. Just before the mine is attacked by government forces, Solomon finds a massive rare pink diamond. He is able to escape long enough to bury it before he is captured by the soldiers, but not before he is seen by the one of the rebels, Captain Poison (David Harewood), who is also taken prisoner.
Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a former South African soldier turned part-time mercenary and arms dealer. In the midst of a deal to sell arms to an RUF commander, he is also arrested by the government, who confiscate the diamonds he was given in payment. Thrown in the same jail as Solomon and Captain Poison, he overhears the captain accuse Solomon of taking the diamond. After Archer is released, he arranges for Solomon to be sprung as well, hoping that the man will take him to the diamond. It seems his employers are less than happy that Archer lost the diamonds and finding Solomon’s diamond would go a long way toward The former fisherman, however, is more concerned with locating his family, but the relief agencies are of little help. Unknown to him, the RUF has taken his son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) and begun indoctrinating him as one of their soldiers.
While preparing to go after Solomon’s diamond, Archer encounters Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist doing a story on the trafficking in conflict diamonds. She tries to ply him for information about the diamond trade but he initially rebuffs her. He approaches Solomon with a simple deal: take him to diamond in exchange for help finding Solomon’s family. Before the fisherman can be convinced, the RUF forces overrun the capitol and they have to flee, barely escaping being caught in the crossfire between rebel and government troops.
They reach a refugee center and Archer makes contact with Maddy. In exchange for helping him and Solomon pose as journalists, he will provide with inside information on how conflict diamonds reach the West with the full knowledge of a company called Van de Kaap, a thinly disguised roman à clef for De Beers.
Believe it or not, that’s all set up and there’s plenty of story left. Much of it involves how the RUF indoctrinated child soldiers and how Archer’s employers, a South African “security” firm run by Archer’s former army commander (Arnold Vosloo), are brought in as mercenaries to help the government fight the RUF.
What is admirable about the film is how efficiently it doles out the information while simultaneously moving the story forward. The story manages to inform the view on how De Beers, er, Van de Kaap, would buy conflict diamonds, not to buy, but simply to keep them off the market and keep the price of diamonds artificially inflated, without bogging us down in interminable exposition.
Also to the film’s credit, the three main characters are fleshed-out individuals, none of whom are perfect. Archer remains an amoral opportunist, almost to the end. For all her white liberal outrage, Maddy admits she is somewhat of a thrillseeker who, when the story is done, will return to a comfortable Western existence. Solomon’s devotion to his family is sufficiently absolute that he is willing to do almost anything to be reunited with them, even strike a deal with someone like Archer. This devotion reaches such a white-hot ferocity that, when Solomon faces Captain Poison again, we can forgive almost anything he does.
Of course, this being Hollywood, the filmmakers do indulge in a bit of that same white liberal guilt, especially in the form of an ending that is slightly condescending and self-congratulatory. Fortunately, what has preceded this is an intelligent but slightly over-long thriller whose subject is genuinely worthy of the film’s sense of outrage.