Africa breaks your heart—that’s the simplest and most persistent emotion that bursts out of such recent films as “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Constant Gardener,” “The Last King of Scotland,” and, now, “Blood Diamond,” the best and most enjoyable of this cycle of movies set against the background of civil wars, ethnic conflict, and Western meddling and exploitation. The earlier films, whatever their considerable virtues, were so thoroughly suffused with guilt over the West’s role in Africa’s misery that they left you chastened and hanging your head. But “Blood Diamond,” written by Charles Leavitt, from an idea that he developed with C. Gaby Mitchell, and directed by Edward Zwick, is essentially a romantic adventure story with politics in the background—an old-fashioned movie, I suppose, but exciting and stunningly well made. In Sierra Leone, in 1999, a civil war, fuelled by the trade in “blood diamonds”—in which gems are smuggled out of the country and sold to European buyers for arms money—has been raging for years, tearing up the countryside and pulling families apart. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman, loses his son to the guerrilla army, the Revolutionary United Front, which press-gangs the boy into service. The R.U.F. also forces Solomon to work in the diamond fields, where he pulls a pink stone from the marshy waters. He buries it, but word gets around.
It's a very big diamond, and a smuggler named Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white Rhodesian by birth and a former mercenary in Angola, wants it. In the capital city of Freetown, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a magazine reporter, tries to cozy up to Archer so that she can get the story of how the smuggling racket works. Solomon, Danny, and Maddy all want something, and they take turns using, helping, and half trusting one another to get it, stumbling in and out of war zones as young killers rampage through the towns firing AK-47s from the backs of pickup trucks. You may sense that this tale is vaguely derivative—there are elements of "Casablanca," "The Defiant Ones," "Under Fire," and Hemingway novels woven into it—but you can enjoy what's synthetic and movieish in "Blood Diamond" without finding the film any less stirring as a portrait of Africa in chaos. "Blood Diamond" is violent and spectacular, with a steady current of sexual tension. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly ravish each other with mere glances. The picture is poised on the edge of popular romance, and that's a good place to be; Zwick does serious work there, pulling back from the obvious and digging deeper into Africa's troubles.
DiCaprio's smuggler is out of the Bogart mold—the loner working only for himself, a wounded but self-sufficient guy who's tough on women, and courageous in offhanded and improvised ways that will never reveal a moral intention. DiCaprio may not be Bogart, but he's no longer dewy: he's still got the golden hair and the blue eyes, but the cat-faced features that drove girls nuts in "Titanic" have thickened slightly, and his voice is lower and more biting. The savory, English-flecked patois in which he converses with the thugs is delightful, and there's a ready humor in his open enjoyment of deceit, bribery, and dirty deals. Connelly, who has stroked the brow of too many suffering males in the past, is openly flirtatious and avid this time. Maddy uses her looks to get men to talk. She's tired of writing sensitive, useless pieces about African victims; she's willing to trade a night in bed for a fresh story, but it had better be a good one. Seducing DiCaprio and putting him off at the same time, Connelly suddenly seems like a movie star, not a warm-eyed soul mate. Djimon Hounsou's bereaved father, too anguished to play games with these flirtatious highfliers, keeps the movie's moral sense firmly in place.
The director, the producers, and the writers are conscientious liberals; they let us know that every time a valuable natural resource has been discovered in Africa—whether it's ivory, gold, or diamonds—white Europeans have hired surrogates to plunder the goods, and the Africans have suffered terribly. ("Let's hope they don't discover oil here," a war-dazed old man says.) But the filmmakers don't preach at us; they work out the social meanings and the controlling economic interests through action. "Blood Diamond" is Zwick's best movie. He has jettisoned the noble clichés of "Glory," the grandstanding of "The Siege," the embarrassing solemn antics of Tom Cruise besting the Japanese at swordplay in "The Last Samurai." Like a proficient Hollywood director from sixty years ago, he has found the right balance between star glamour and social conscience. The scenes of rampage and slaughter, shot with a handheld camera that plunges the spectator into the middle of the action, are both nerve-racking and saddening. As the three companions move around the country, the traces of civil conflict—the human and physical wrecks left in the wake of the struggle—become increasingly nightmarish. And, without sensationalizing, Zwick shows us the workings of a recurring phenomenon that goes beyond heartbreak to the most sordid tragedy: the way warlords give boys a sense of power with guns, liquor, and drugs, and turn them into joyous killers.
At the beginning of "Déjà Vu," the new thriller directed by Tony Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer—a veteran pair of pyromaniacs, if there ever was one—five hundred and forty-three men, women, and children board the Alvin Stumpf ferry in New Orleans and, halfway across the Mississippi, get blown sky high by a terrorist. The ferry explodes into a fireball, and Scott, working in slow motion, sends the bodies, some of them in flames, shooting into the air and then plummeting into the river. He makes beautiful pictures out of carnage. The sequence is sickening, but my problem with it goes beyond the usual charge of exploitation. It turns out that the scene is positioned as an opening gambit in a complicated scheme that mixes detection and science fiction. The screenwriters, Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, create an ace A.T.F. investigator (Denzel Washington) who gets some major help catching the terrorist. Government scientists use a super-potent time machine to send him spinning back to the recent past, where he has a chance to prevent both the mass deaths and the murder of a beautiful young woman (Paula Patton). The time-travel plot raises an old metaphysical question: Can there be an alternative to what has taken place, a substitute stream of actuality? Such wan hopes always come off as both haunting and childish. Haunting because we all have dreams: If I had acted differently at a certain point in my life, wouldn't everything afterward have been changed? Childish because in life, alas, there is only the dread or happy finality of what is.
Movies, too, have fixed narratives, with screenwriters and directors playing God and assigning fates to their characters. At the moment, however, a number of filmmakers are toying with the idea of overturning narrative destiny. The recent "Stranger Than Fiction" makes a charming joke out of the entire matter. Will Ferrell, in the role of a man who is the quintessence of dullness—an I.R.S. agent who counts out his life in bytes—suddenly hears a woman's voice in his head, narrating his thoughts and acts. It is the voice of Emma Thompson, who plays a novelist writing a book about him. The question for Ferrell's Everyman is: Does the novelist control his actions? Is he nothing more than a character to be disposed of as she pleases, even killed off? Or will he become the hero of his own life? Ferrell has the good luck to fall in with Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing a tattooed free spirit who would give any man a reason to be a hero, and with Dustin Hoffman, as a manic literature professor who tells Will that the only narrative possible for him is the one he creates for himself. Prisoner, break your chains: the author-God can be overthrown.
"Stranger Than Fiction," like "Déjà Vu," lays alternate versions of the same event on top of one another. Movies can perform this sort of sleight of hand all too easily. In two recent films about professional magicians, "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," bodies disappear, apparitions take form onstage, and so on. Simple enough—even a bit glib. A real magician depends on the unity of time and space to make his tricks convincing; a movie disposes of such unities with a cut. In brief, I felt cheated by these clever, narrative-disrupting films. They seem to miss the point. After all, every fiction film is magical—an artifice devoted to "What if?" Movies exist in two dimensions, with a third only implied; they jump all over the place, eliding the tedium of days and hours. A story that successfully combines character, the infinite surfaces of the world, and the values that we live by into a coherent whole is a miracle—and harder to bring off than any of these well-made but slyly irresponsible movies