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An argument could be made that Edward Zwick has become our contemporary Stanley Kramer. The latter was a mediocre filmmaker who, during the fifties and sixties, gave his pictures prestige by addressing pressing social issues in an earnest if cinematically flatfooted way. Zwick may be working some decades later, but he’s following much the same blueprint. Whether it’s racism (“Glory”) or female equality (“Courage Under Fire”) or personal freedom versus social order (“The Siege”) or the clash between tradition and modernization (“The Last Samurai”), Zwick has planted the issue in a dramatic context–often involving the military–that allows for some crowd-pleasing action to coat the didactic pill, as it were, in the trappings of popular entertainment. It’s a ploy that’s worked for him as it did for Kramer–his movies have been taken more seriously than they actually deserve to be. And though he’s a more adept director than Kramer was (even his best pictures, like “Inherit the Wind,” weren’t much beyond mediocre, while most, like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” are simply inept), Zwick’s work is still more than a little pedestrian and anonymous.

He follows the familiar pattern with “Blood Diamond,” which takes a matter of contemporary concern–the exploitation of Africa by western powers, and the devastation it causes–and presents it in the form of an action-adventure featuring a colorful though troubled white rogue, the simple but honorable local fisherman who becomes his possible ticket to wealth, and the beautiful, principled journalist who’s drawn to the adventurer despite his checkered past and emotionally devastated by the plight of the fisherman and his land, devastated by war. If you pierce through the self-importance, you just might spy a dose of “The African Queen” mixed with a dollop of “The Defiant Ones” here, though the effect is more like the latter–a Kramer movie!–than the former.

In the picture, set in 1999 Sierra Leone, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a battle-tested young man, born in what was then Rhodesia, who’d once fought in the ranks of South African Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), now head, it seems, of a private army of soldiers of fortune. Archer is in the employ of a British diamond firm, smuggling gems mined by laborers enslaved to a brutal anti-government guerrilla army into a neighboring country. He’s caught and briefly jailed by soldiers, but while incarcerated he learns of a large stone secreted away in the wild by another inmate, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a villager who’d been seized by the guerrillas to serve as a worker, while his beloved young son was taken by them to be brainwashed into one of their “child soldiers” controlled by drugs and inured to violence. Wanting the diamond to get out of Africa, Archer promises the reunite Vandy with his family if he’ll lead him to it. And to finagle their way past sentry posts into the war zone where it’s buried, Danny uses his charms on the implausibly squeaky-clean, highly principled American reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly).

It wouldn’t be of much import to track the ins and outs of what follows. Suffice it to say that along the way Archer’s venality gradually turns to something more redemptive and (as the autobiographical details he pours out to Maddy in a breakthrough moment suggest) he will eventually prove a self-sacrificing fellow, willing to give up much to help Maddy uncover the nefarious schemes of the diamond firms making a killing off the continent’s blood-soaked gems. And, of course, the gruffness he originally shows toward Vandy is transformed into unexpected brotherhood, so much so that he’ll abandon his own dreams–and more–to reunite the man with his family.

This is very formulaic stuff, made even worse by a decision to add so many climaxes to the last half-hour that by the time the final one comes along, it feels like an exhausted runner completing the ultimate lap in a marathon. And although the picture has the courage–if that’s the right word–to choose the less crowd-pleasing of the two obvious conclusions to its romantic plot thread, one can give it credit only for electing the lesser of two banalities. There’s also something vaguely unseemly about using the civil war of the nineties in Sierra Leone as the film’s backdrop, especially in terms of the subplot involving Vandy’s son and his initiation into the company of child soldiers. That phenomenon is a horrifying business, certainly worthy of serious screen treatment; but here it becomes little more than a mechanism for a soapoperatic episode.

As for the cast, it’s pretty much DiCaprio’s show. Strutting about with an air that combines wounded experience with boyish charm, and sporting an accent that goes on and off, he easily dominates his co-stars. Except for a few moments when he’s allowed to show his emotions at full throttle, Hounsou is restrained and dignified in the same way Brock Peters was in “To Kill a Mockingbird” half a century ago, and Connelly is even less challenged than she was in the recent “Little Children.” Despite its epic length, this is basically a three-character piece, in which apart from Vosloo no one else makes much of an impression. Technically all is well, with ace cinematographer Eduardo Sierra capturing the African locations skillfully in widescreen format, though James Newton Howard’s score is nondescript.

The issues raised by “Blood Diamond” are real. But as with most of Zwick’s films, the high principles and good intentions don’t compensate for the obvious point-making and flabby execution. This film joins “The Interpreter” and “The Constant Gardener” as another attempt to convey the torment of post-colonial Africa that doesn’t fulfill its ambitions. “The Last King of Scotland” comes closer to the mark.


Joseph, the human father of Jesus, or if you prefer the husband of Mary, is called the silent saint, because he speaks nary a word in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth–or anywhere else in them. But he’s a pretty chatty fellow in the script that Mike Rich has concocted for this retelling of the Christmas story.

That addition is only one part of a fairly liberal expansion of what is found in the Bible–particularly Matthew 1:18-2:18 and Luke 1:5-2:20. Those portions have, to be sure, been melded together fairly intelligently by Mike Rich, to provide, in the essentials, an account fundamentally (pun intended) faithful to the scriptural ones (although, it must be noted, the two evangelists do not themselves agree in every particular, and Luke’s narrative deals more with Zachariah, Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist than with the nativity per se). But in order to take the story to the length of even a short feature (running only a bit over a hundred minutes–which certainly doesn’t rank as a “Biblical epic”), Rich has padded things in a curiously contemporary way. He’s invented an explanation for the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, for instance, that emphasizes the cruel tax policies of the Romans and their minion Herod the Great that supposedly bankrupted Mary’s parents and compelled them to seek a suitor for their daughter. He’s elaborated Matthew’s account of Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, turning in into almost a soap opera crisis. He’s inserted a good deal of footage about King Herod and his political-religious machinations, in scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in “King of Kings” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” forty years ago. And, presumably because he felt a need to lighten things up a bit, he’s turned the Magi into a sort of comic trio, bickering and squabbling not only about undertaking their mission but along the way as well. For excitement’s sake he’s even added a scene in which Mary and Joseph are attacked by a snake during their difficult trip to Bethlehem for the census. And a pious meeting with one of the shepherds who will later visit the newborn child on their way to their destination.

These and other evidences of Rich’s massaging of the Scriptural account probably won’t bother believers overmuch–they’re not likely to be taken as insulting or sacrilegious–but they do point up the fact that among early Christians, the birth of Jesus wasn’t all that important an event; that’s why Mark and John didn’t mention it at all, and Luke treats it only very briefly. (It was Christ’s public career, and especially his death and resurrection, that were emphasized.) And in ritual the celebration of Christmas came fairly late, and was placed in the calendar at a point where the feast would deflect attention from pagan festivals.

Nowadays, of course, things are very different; Santa Claus clearly trumps the Easter Bunny in today’s culture. So there’s a built-in holiday audience for “The Nativity Story,” not as emotionally committed perhaps as the one that embraced “The Passion of the Christ” but probably larger. And one can at least be grateful that this isn’t just another contemporary Christmas movie about finding “the real meaning” of the season amidst crassness and consumerism. (It’s obviously designed to profit from the holiday mania, but that’s just a matter of business.)

Considered simply on its own, though, it’s not greatly superior to the sort of fare you’ll encounter on religious cable channels from time to time. It avoids Hallmark-greeting card slickness and Cecil D. DeMille razzmatazz, but replaces them with a plodding earnestness that leaves it largely inoffensive but rather dull. The settings don’t opt for elaborate size or color, but their period grubbiness and lack of splendor don’t make them especially attractive to look at, either. The special effects are kept to a minimum, except for the luminous appearances of the angel Gabriel (who also turns into a dove and flies off) and the manger scene at the very end, which is all to the good; but that leaves a certain visual drabness for most of the running-time.

As to the cast, they’re capable–and at least they don’t have conventionally white-bread, Jeffrey Hunter looks–but, like the rest of the picture, a little tepid. Keisha Castle-Hughes, from “The Whale Rider,” is a young Mary but a fairly impassive one. Oscar Isaac is a somewhat more vibrant, voluble Joseph, and handsome too. In the supporting cast, Ciaran Hinds is a morose, sinister Herod, Shohreh Aghdashloo a radiant Elizabeth, and Stanley Townsend a sturdy if rather emotionless Zachariah. Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha work hard at being lovable as the three wise men, but don’t quite succeed.

“The Nativity Story” will be embraced by many viewers simply as an act of piety or as an excuse for a family holiday celebration. But one might have hoped for a more imaginative, challenging treatment of the material from director Catherine Hardwicke, whose considerable technique was put to better use in her previous films. As it is, she seems to have been stymied by the responsibility of making a film that will offend no one; and as a result her picture is undemanding, eager to please and, as a result, more than a little bland.