'The Notorious Mr. Bout': Film Review

Courtesy of Market Road Films
Weapons for mass consumption

Drawing on home video footage shot by its subject, this playful documentary profiles the jailed Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who inspired the Nicolas Cage thriller "Lord of War"

The spectacular rise and fall of an infamous Russian arms dealer provides the plot of this entertaining real-life thriller, but co-directors Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin carefully avoid making any firm moral judgments about their colorful subject. Already well reviewed on the festival circuit, this U.S.-Russia co-production opens theatrically in the U.K. this week ahead of a BBC television slot in September. More international festivals and a U.S. release are currently being finalized. Pozdorovkin previously co-directed last year’s Sundance prize-winner, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Born and raised in the old Soviet Union, Viktor Bout made mountains of cash from its collapse, setting up an air freight empire flying deadly cargo into war zones and human-rights black holes. To family and friends, Bout was a legitimate businessman who occasionally turned a blind eye to the legal and ethical small print of the import/export trade. To his enemies, especially in the U.S. and U.K. governments, he was a sanctions-busting “merchant of death” whose clients allegedly included African war criminals, murderous Middle Eastern dictators and pariah regimes like the Taliban. Along the way he also threw boisterous parties and shot dozens of home movies.

The cinematic potential of Bout’s story has already been recognized by writer-director Andrew Niccol in his darkly comic 2005 thriller Lord of War, which starred Nicolas Cage as a wily Russian-American arms dealer partly based on Bout. Several interviewees in The Notorious Mr. Bout dismiss Niccol's movie as lurid fantasy, which it was. But both films share a cynicism toward government complicity in the weapons trade, painting globe-trotting freelancers like Bout as fall guys for politicians with blood on their hands.

The first celebrity arms dealer of the selfie age, Bout recorded an extensive library of home video footage stretching back more than 20 years. The filmmakers score a coup here by harvesting 200 hours of these recordings, which provide the bulk of their source material. They also enjoy the full cooperation of Bout's wife, Alla Bout, and Bout himself, who tells his story by email from prison. His words are voiced by an actor. Less charitable interviews with estranged ex-colleagues and the U.S. lawmen who finally arrested him give the film a degree of journalistic balance. The Notorious Mr. Bout paints an even-handed, sympathetic picture but stops short of one-sided propaganda.

We first see Bout in scratchy archive footage from the early 1990s, slender and handsome as he marries Alla in Saint Petersburg. As the decade progresses he literally appears to bloat on his own success, his waistline expanding as he sets up lucrative air freight operations in Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. “By 25, I was a millionaire,” he recalls. “By 30, I had an empire."

But 9/11 was a disastrous game-changer for Bout, putting his shadowy operations under heavy scrutiny. He returned to Russia but made a fatal error in keeping a high profile, even giving an interview to The New York Times. He was finally cornered in 2008 during a sting operation in Thailand, when undercover DEA agents caught him on camera trying to sell weapons to the Colombian rebel group FARC for use against Americans. The film opens with dramatic footage of Bout’s arrest and ends with him being sentenced to 25 years behind bars in New York City in 2012.

Punctuated by playful animated graphics and a comically ebullient score of Slavic folk music, The Notorious Mr. Bout is arguably guilty of trivializing a serious subject. The filmmakers certainly avoid taking a clear moral stand, even when Bout’s own video records appear to undermine his claims of innocence. But between the lines, this engaging documentary shines a light on the often mundane reality behind media-created folk devils, and challenges the hazy moral distinction between state-sanctioned arms dealers and their black-market counterparts.

Production companies: Market Road Films, Third Party Productions
Directors: Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Producers: Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Cinematographer: Tony Gerber

Editors: Arseni Troitski, Pax Wassermann
Music: Fall On Your Sword

No rating, 94 minutes

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