"Lord of War" may not have been Nicolas Cage's shining moment, but it probably looked great on paper. The movie sees Cage jet-setting all over the planet with suitcases full of money, and making high-stakes weapons deals in exotic countries. The film is based on the life of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, and while "Lord of War" may have been a so-so movie, Bout's real life exploits are anything but average.
A new documentary about Bout -- "The Notorious Mr. Bout" -- has made its way to Hot Docs, and it's well worth a look. It may not be as flashy as Hollywood, but it does fill in the blanks on this unimaginable and surprisingly human story. Viktor Bout doesn't love it, but his nickname is "The Merchant of Death." According to authorities around the world, he has earned every letter of this macabre moniker, but Bout thinks of himself as a hardworking businessman. Both appear to be true.
His rise to infamy really gets started as the Iron Curtain falls in the late '80s. Russia and the Baltics were in a time of massive flux. As these countries transitioned into whatever form of democracy exists there today, the black market thrived. Newly married and hungry to make some money, Bout becomes a food importer for people starving for variety. The first scenes in this doc provide amazing video footage of Bout's early years entertaining customers and loading cargo planes, as cameras seem to be constantly rolling. His penchant for making home movies serves this doc very well.
By the mid-'90s, Bout is working out of Western Europe and the United Arab Emirates with an endless schedule of supply planes bound for Russia in his control. He becomes a millionaire at just 25 years old. With each new scene in "The Notorious Mr. Bout," his empire grows with a network of planes, cash, suppliers, buyers and contacts. His operation had so many moving parts that it would become hard to keep tabs on, and that was the precise reason he was offered big money to move weapons.
For all his business savvy and his unsavoury dealings with everyone from Bulgarian weapons manufacturers to Congolese rebels, Bout comes off as anything but malicious. When he isn't calmly giving out orders to his shipping partners, Bout loves life! Dancing at parties, drinking, eating, and general goofing around seems to be his most comfortable disposition. It's this soft-bellied, easy-going schlub of a man that will tug at your humanity, even if he is responsible for countless innocent deaths.
Award-winning filmmakers Tony Gerber ("Full Battle Rattle") and Maxim Pozdorovkin ("Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer") are on the case with this one, and they've put together a portrait that certainly doesn't tell the whole story, but does offer some new perspective on The Merchant of Death. The home movies donated by Bout's wife are certainly the key to this doc's success.
He's 47 now and serving time in the U.S. for a litany of convictions. Is he a cold-blooded capitalist who deserved to be extradited to the States, or is Bout simply a realistic businessman who's been made the poster boy of much larger problem? See the doc, and decide for yourself.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Sun., May 4, 7:00 p.m.