If we're very lucky, "Blood Diamond" will be the first of a new genre of films. On the one hand, there is the type of film is typified by "Hotel Rwanda." Hotel Rwanda, a film about a hotel owner who keeps Tutsi refugees alive during the Rwandan genocide, is a socially conscious film, which attempts to awaken the conscience of the viewer, to increase awareness of the horrors that are going on in our world, so that people will try to do something. On the other hand, there are action films. "Blood Diamond" fuses the two into something better than either.
Action movies are a strange phenomenon. One can see them as the continuation of a long tradition going all the way back to Homer's Iliad, the tradition of literature that celebrates heroism, strength, courage in battle, adventure. Why do we enjoy heroic literature? It is exciting; it gets the adrenalin pumping; we feel vicariously, first fear and danger, then triumph. But it's not just that. We need to believe in the hero's cause to enjoy it. If the author fails to convince us to sympathize with one side (and usually, to despise the other side), he has failed, and the story is just a lot of pointless bloodshed. Action movies teach us to admire virtue: courage, above all; strength and stamina; loyalty and selfless sacrifice; sometimes cunning and quick wits. And the shadow of death that hangs over the hero makes life more poignant. The embrace of a beloved woman (for example) has more meaning when it may be the last.
Now, in most societies of the past, war was a frequent occurrence, and heroic literature had plenty of real material to work with: war was a regular occurrence. And courage in battle was a critical social resource: without it, lands would be overrun, peoples enslaved or put to the sword. Heroic literature was needed to inspire in the young the virtues that the society couldn't do without. Courage is still with us, our soldiers have it in plenty, and we are indebted to them for their brave service. Probably action movies still play the social role that heroic literature has long done, inspiring young men (and women) to mimic in life the courage represented in art. But America has enjoyed peace at home for generations now. Wars occur far away. They don't touch our everyday lives much. And the creative class is ambivalent about them, anyway, unsure whether our side is in the right. Moreover, war today is disciplined, technologized, almost industrial. It no longer seems as heroic as it did.
Action movies fill the role of the old heroic literature but for a long time now they have been more escapist. In a Cold War-era James Bond film, the global conflict with communism is exploited as a built-in moral compass, a grand backdrop to raise the stakes and make the action exciting, but the balance between inspiring patriotic courage and entertaining a crowd has tipped in favor of the latter. And yet, in order to be entertaining, action movies also need an ethical point, good guys and bad guys that the viewer really believes are good and bed. At least in the Cold War, there was a readily available cause and enemy: we might not all have agreed with it completely, but at least we understood it. Since the end of the Cold War, this is a problem. Who is the bad guy? Who is the enemy? Action movies like "The Rock" make the US government the bad guy, alleging bizarre evil conspiracies that penetrate to the heart of everything. Action movies like "Mission Impossible" raise the stakes by putting intelligence agencies' own personnel at risk: Tom Cruise's character has to prevent the exposure of his fellow agents. This kind of action film requires (a) more mental effort on the part of the viewers to understand a good/bad conflict with which they are not yet familiar, and (b) a more robust suspension of disbelief, since the villains are so implausible.
Are there really no genuine bad guys left in the world then, against which fictional heroes can display their prowess and deserve our sympathies? This is where "Blood Diamond" comes in: it identifies them. The Sierra Leonean warlords, jeering and cheering as they lop off people's hands, turning children into monsters, lording it over teams of slaves in the diamond camps, are as despicable as any of the implausible evil geniuses who serve as the nemesis of James Bond. But they are real. There are far too many of them. May the movies villainize them again and again, in a hundred different ways, may they villainize them until they are a cliche, a recognized type that the movie viewer comfortably anticipates as a cinematic formula. Until we can read reports of atrocities in Darfur, or the Congo, and the numbers and place-names are no longer meaningless statistics because we have seen them, have seen janjaweed and warlords and child-soldiers in film after film. Then, perhaps, we will start to remove this scourge from the earth.
There's more to be said and I don't have time to write it all... Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance in "Blood Diamond," as a "Rhodesian"-- as exiled whites from the country now called Zimbabwe sometimes call themselves-- gunrunner and diamond smuggler who, later in the film, partially redeems himself. I met Rhodesians while I was in Africa, and they are a strange and fascinating people. A white minority ruling an apartheid state, they declared independence from Britain in order to fight a desperate last stand against majority, i.e., black rule, against international law, abandoned by the West, in the 1970s. Some Americans went over there to help-- so I was told by a Rhodesian I met in Malawi, who had served in the Rhodesian army in his youth-- old grunts from Vietnam who wanted to keep "fighting communism." The Americans were a lot older, some in their 30s, whereas the Rhodesians got drafted for ten years straight out of high school. They could barely understand the Americans with their accents. Eventually the white regime got overrun. Now, the Rhodesian cause was pretty wicked, wasn't it? A white elite fighting a doomed fight for an apartheid state against majority rule, in defiance of international law? And yet it was Robert Mugabe who came to power when they lost. Sometimes it's hard to say who's right and wrong in history. The whites were not expelled in mass but the water got hotter and hotter for them and many of them left, scattered all over Africa, as Africa slipped into crises, deepening poverty, AIDS. It's good to see a Rhodesian character represented on screen. The world should know their story.
Other characters are a journalist trying to expose the corporate buyers of blood diamonds, and Solomon Vandy, a poor fisherman caught in the fray, who is enslaved in the diamond camps, loses his son to the rebels as a child-soldier, and then, because he finds a huge pink diamond of tremendous value, gets drawn into the furious conniving adventures of Leonardo DiCaprio's character. I could go on and on. Spectacular film.