The Notorious Mr. Bout
Viktor Bout was a war profiteer, an entrepreneur, an aviation tycoon, an arms dealer, and—strangest of all—a documentary filmmaker. The Notorious Mr. Bout is the ultimate rags-to-riches-to-prison memoir, documented by the last man you'd expect to be holding the camera.
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★★★½ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
The Notorious Mr. Bout is an illuminating documentary chronicling the life of Russian businessman, amateur filmmaker and arms smuggler, Viktor Bout, before his arrest in an international sting operation spearheaded by the US government. Perhaps most famous for providing the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in Lord of War, Bout is a far more fascinating and enigmatic figure than his cinematic counterpart.
Directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, The Notorious Mr. Bout benefits from its extensive access to Viktor’s family and his home movies that documented, in great detail, his business dealings from the mid-90s to his eventual incarceration in 2011. It is something of a coup for the directors that Bout saw himself as a filmmaker and documentarian as he captures every facet of his personal and professional life on camera. Seeing first-hand footage of Bout and his dodgy dealings proves for genuinely fascinating viewing.
The documentary follows dual narratives, firstly exploring Bout’s rise to infamy and fortune following the demise of communism in his native Russia, as well as his trial in America as watched by his steely and loyal wife. It is the former strand that proves most interesting as Bout’s amoral empire grows across the world with his planes delivering goods (including the illegal kind) to many war-torn countries. Whilst dominated by Bout’s own home movies the film also features candid interviews with family, former colleagues, journalists and the DEA agents who brought him down.
Viktor Bout is a charismatic character with a troubling lack of morality. He is something of an enigma - a loyal family man and opportunistic entrepreneur who never views himself as an arms dealer. He may have gained the nickname ‘the merchant of death’ but he sees himself as a transporter who simply has no issue transporting illegal and dangerous goods. Despite his 25-year jail sentence his wife and former colleagues also remain loyal to him whilst still believing he did little wrong.
The Notorious Mr. Bout offers a unique insight into one of the world’s most famous criminals. It’s only a shame they hired Borat to provide the voice-over narration.
★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
"Viktor Bout is not the merchant of death. He is a merchant of some death" - important distinction, there.
I'm becoming increasingly fascinated by these liminal people who hop between different lives - the swindlers, the forgers, the delusional, and in this case the arms traffickers. They all seem to have a bit of the artist in them, which is probably where the term "con artist" comes from. Denied the artist's usual privilege to enter other lives for a time then leave, their creative impulses spill out in odd and pathological ways.
Viktor Bout, arms dealer, denounced by the British MP Peter Hain as the "merchant of death" and fictionalised in Andrew Niccol's film Lord of War, wanted to be a documentary film-maker, and says he turned to his main profession to finance this career and get around some exotic locations. The strength of this new documentary, co-directed by Tony Gerber (Full Battle Rattle) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) is in its access to Bout's video archive.
It creates a haunting, spectral portrait of life inside a sensational news story, and raises some eyebrows at just how naive he seemed to be. At one point, about a decade into his arms-trafficking career, he spots a curious sight and exclaims "This will be one of the funniest scenes in the documentary!" Ten years on, you'd have thought he'd have realised the film-making part of his life had been somewhat overshadowed by his other business interests. But I suppose you've got to cling to a dream.
It could, of course, be a pose, but Gerber and Pozdorovkin do a good job at contextualising Bout's delusion in the middle of a global delusion; that the Cold War was over, it was the end of history and Yeltsin's hypercaffienated style of capitalism would bring in a new era of freedom and plenty to Eastern Europe. One interviewee expresses amazement that Bout fell for the sting operation that led to his arrest, which couldn't have been more obviously a sting if the people he met had included the singer Sting and a swarm of bees. But I think a little self-delusion was necessary to live a life like this.
At times, the film becomes a little too snuggled into Bout's bubble - I would have liked to see more on the diplomatic games that ended with Bout's transfer to American soil, and it raises, but does not answer, the question of what makes Bout's arms dealing illegal while the arms dealing of nation states - often just as predatory and unethical - is legal. Maybe there isn't an answer for that one. The intimate focus does make for an effective party's-over moment as the anarchic '90s gives way to the War on Terror, though, and I quite liked the voiceover, told from Bout's perspective by an actor doing a nnnyafected Ukrainian nnnyacszent. It is kind of funny, but not as annoying as you'd think.
★★★½ review by Owen Hughes on Letterboxd
Another BBC Storyville documentary. This one is about Viktor Bout, notorious cargo haulage businessman, entrepreneur, convicted arms dealer and apparent documentarian. Since he could first afford a video camera, he filmed many significant moments in his life; from his early career in the transport and logistics industry, to his immensely popular birthday celebrations, and even some controversial business meetings.
It's interesting that even though he clearly set up some dubious meetings, smuggled arms throughout war torn African states and did whatever he had to do in order to make money, he comes out the other side of this documentary with some dignity. To see his roots, his background and his personal, intimate video tapes, you learn a lot more about him than is perhaps reported in the press. It makes you question your own opinion (in this case, the reasons behind his conviction and trial), which is a good thing for any documentary to do. Whether your opinion is reinforced or quelled, it doesn't matter. It's still quite an entertaining little documentary that dispels a few popular misconceptions.
★★★★ review by Ben Smith on Letterboxd
The last thing you expect to feel when watching a documentary about an international arms trader dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’ is much empathy for him – but this remarkable film lays bare not only the man himself, but the mysterious marketplace he worked in. Viktor Bout’s story is most notable as the basis for the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War, and as expected the reality is far less glamorous and two-dimensional.
Coming across as a thoroughly decent bloke who loves his family and wants to pursue legitimate business interests, we follow the young Soviet Army translator’s savvy decision-making of his early twenties – setting up an import company to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and moving on to Belgium and the United Arab Emirates, continually following the money and the emerging markets. At this stage he is certainly no ‘Merchant of Death’, just a slightly scruffy guy from Tajikistan with a tash. But as his business expanded to war torn African states his old soviet carrier planes became perfect for transporting vast arsenals back and forth around the globe – the title begins to fit. Roll on decades of the high life, making millions, travelling the world and opening business after business. But ultimately this arrogance and naivety developed over years of unqualified success proves his downfall – as he guilelessly embraces the media limelight and stumbles into the most laughably inept CIA sting imaginable in 2008.
Although directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the standout material in The Notorious Mr. Bout comes from Viktor himself. His aspirations of being a filmmaker lead him seemingly to videotape almost every second of his life. The gift of these tapes from his wife Alla to the directors must’ve been beyond their wildest dreams. They allow his story to be told visually with sparing exposition, and perhaps most importantly capture a fantastic sense of the period of the narrative. We witness Bout meeting with African generals, celebrating his birthday and snapping photos as a wide-eyed tourist. “I wanted to travel, see world, make documentary film,” he states in an email from his current prison cell. The unbelievably frank footage rarely feels like the coverage of a master criminal.
There will be no shortage of voices claiming the film gives Viktor a mercifully easy ride for, intentionally or not, he has fuelled conflicts and death with a morally bankrupt approach to his cargo businesses. But by no stretch of the imagination is he the all powerful head of the arms trade – he’s more a publicity hungry fool. The real evils are the laws that allowed these weapons to be freely shipped around with no punishable crime being committed. Unquestionably a scapegoat for a murky billion dollar industry, Viktor Bout has been morally suspect, but seldom criminally so.
The Notorious Mr. Bout is an unexpectedly absorbing watch. From the opening grainy CCTV footage of the sting it appears to be taking us on a tabloid path – but here is a far more rounded, ambitious film that delves into the human side of the story, not just the evil deeds and sensationalisation. It’s a documentary that instantly encourages debate – and a reassessment of media driven snap judgements.
★★★★½ review by sonofsam on Letterboxd
The Notorious Mr. Bout is documentary about the illicit arms dealer Viktor Bout. It's an eye opening insight into the arms trade in general and asks many questions on post 9/11 practice by the USA. The film works due to the fact that Viktor Bout liked to film just about everything, giving the film makers plenty of footage to narrate the film, added with the usual talking head style interviews from the people closely involved.
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