The White Diamond is a continually intriguing and occasionally breathtaking documentary from Werner Herzog. This time Herzog turns his incisive eye on Graham Dorrington, a British aeronautical engineer trying to develop a small, highly maneuverable airship for studying the top of the jungle canopy (here's his website). But it turns out he's done this before, and with tragic consequences.
You can't help but wonder how Herzog finds these people and these situations. In this case I almost suspect his agent has standing orders to report to Herzog any and all eccentric-seeming types who're planning an ambitious project deep in the jungle. That, or Dorrington himself figured, "I'm an eccentric-seeming type who's planning an ambitious project deep in the jungle; maybe I ought to give Werner Herzog a call."
The principals—Dorrington and a local named Marc Anthony—both bring pathos to the film with their respective backstories, but apart from that typically Herzogian wrinkle, The White Diamond is largely quiet, low-key, and optimistic. One is led to reflect, both by Dorrington and Marc Anthony's stories, upon life choices—sacrifice, loss, and how much is worth it. In a moment that's particularly poignant, largely because of its timing, Dorrington seems to internally confront this very question. Nevertheless, the sad undercurrent is just that: an undercurrent. Despite some disagreements among team members, Herzog included, he seems to share at least some of Dorrington's enthusiasm for the project, and it comes through between the lines.
Herzog's curious brand of humor isn't totally absent, either. Marc Anthony has a beloved rooster whom Herzog devotes an aside to introducing. Now and then, the setup we're given makes us worry that something terrible is going to happen—if not to Dorrington, then to the rooster ("Den de rooster wass attecked by an enormoose junkle snayke. We fownt de remainss de morning efter"). Again, though, The White Diamond never gets quite as dark as ambitious jungle projects can obviously get—the rooster lives, don't worry.
Fans of beautiful things filmed well simply must see this film. Airships have an inherent visual poetry, as any steampunk enthusiast will tell you, and Herzog gets it. Some of the most memorable shots in this often postcard-y movie involve the airship slowly coming into view, or half-cloaked in fog. My favorite bit, though, is the extended final shot—it doesn't involve the airship but it's remarkable all the same, suggesting exhilaration, otherworldliness, deep mystery, eternity, and generally much of the same sorts of deep musings Herzog induces in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Star Score: 4 out of 5