Some of the nicest people supply arms to tyrants and terrorists these days — or such is one conclusion one could draw from “The Notorious Mr. Bout” and its subject. He’s a Russian “entrepreneur” who by all evidence here is industrious, fun, loyal, clever, genial — and known to many as “the Merchant of Death,” a nickname first given him by an appalled United Nations official. Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s very entertaining documentary paints a somewhat grotesquely comic, in its way even sympathetic, portrait of a man whose guilt in enabling war crimes is crystal-clear to everyone save himself. Sales should be hale, especially to broadcasters.
Viktor Bout currently languishes in a New York federal prison, serving a minimum sentence of 25 years on several convictions. He views this as a gross injustice — after all, he was entrapped. Never mind that we see him on surveillance tape happily agreeing to sell military-grade weaponry to DEA agents posing as Colombian guerillas for the express purpose of killing Americans. Or that he has a long history of similar dealmaking, particularly with conflict zones in Africa. As far as he, devoted wife Alla and several long-term employees are concerned, he simply transports goods. What they are, what is done with them and by who is not his concern, even though his own archival video footage underlines that he has indeed been largely aware of such things over the years.
For Bout, who with considerable pluck entered import/export trade right after the fall of communism — riding high on Russia’s new Wild West capitalism — is (or at least was) a home-videotaping junkie, having first purchased a camera when he started making some dough. Thus we see him traveling the world over two decades’ span, always the life of the party, oblivious to the fact that most folks in his position might actively avoid making a permanent record of their partying with shady weapons manufacturers and shadier international despots, or playing tourist a few hundred yards from a brutal civil war. He’s not an idiot, and doesn’t seem sociopathic; allies say he’s simply naive. The only certain thing is that he has an extraordinary capacity for moral blindness.
Hence, while admittedly also dealing in less objectionable consumer items (from produce to home electronics), Bout and a shifting cast of partners enjoyed dubiously legal trading of old Soviet cargo planes, Bulgarian-manufactured arms, et al., to and from such places as the United Arab Emirates, the Congo, Angola, Liberia, Afghanistan, South Africa and so forth — nations where human rights have a troubled past, and in some cases an abysmal present and future.
Late in the film, there’s a moment when one observer among the various journalists, diplomats and watchdogs interviewed here muses that Bout grew up in a culture of institutionalized corruption, and having come of age during the “big bang of globalization,” his subsequent success has done nothing to revise an inculcated belief that making money is never a “clean” business. Is he a convenient scapegoat to punish so governments can continue to downplay their own roles in global arms trade, oppression and murder? Perhaps. But then again, how much suffering and evil would be avoided if intermediaries like him simply declined to profit, however indirectly, from bloodshed?
The lively mix of talking heads, public footage and ample private footage (clearly the Bouts thought being seen “as they really are” would be exonerating) is further brightened by clever graphics and an inspired score. Latter’s oom-pah-pah lounge music personifies and mocks the slightly vulgar jet-set lifestyle its protagonists lived until recently.