On 6 March 2008, Viktor Bout was arrested in Bangkok after having been recorded apparently selling arms to an alleged terrorist organisation, the Columbian FARC, and conniving in the murder of American citizens. He had already achieved an international level of notoriety as ‘The Merchant of Death’, an embargo buster, shady operator and arms dealer who made a fortune selling his lethal merchandise to all comers regardless of their affiliation or human rights records. Such was his fame that he had graced The New York Times Magazine cover and was even played by Nicolas Cage in Andrew Niccol’s fictionalised treatment of his life, Lord of War (2005).
Somewhat bizarrely Bout was also an avid amateur filmmaker, minutely documenting his own life and travels in such a way as to directly contradict the murkiness of his activity. Under the auspices of the BBC’s Storyville strand and directed by duo Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, The Notorious Mr. Bout (2014) – released in UK cinemas this week – is a portrait in amoral, para-legal paradox. Utilising the oddly comprehensive home movies Bout himself made along with interviews with his wife Alla, colleagues, bodyguards, and his adversaries in the American Law Enforcement agencies that ultimately brought him down, the filmmakers bring to life a figure of beguiling opacity.
On the one hand there’s Viktor, the avuncular mustachioed business man. An opportunist, Viktor seizes the fall of the Communist regime to begin making serious money out of the nascent capitalism, first importing rarities into the former Soviet Union and then taking control of cargo hubs in the Middle East and eventually Africa. This mild-mannered individual can be espied at birthday parties and family celebrations, always joking and a little bit shy, or exhausted at the birth of his daughter, the family man working hard to provide material comfort for his loved ones. As a traveller, he’s also a placidly curious tourist, taking the opportunity of a business deal in the Congo to do a bit of camping. Along with his heavies he makes dumplings, wistfully expounding on how he has apparently read a “great deal about entropy”.
Yet there is also the notorious Bout of the title who knowingly provides horrific regimes with the means to sustain themselves, stamp out their enemies and commit atrocities. At one point, Bout walks through a village with his client, listening to the songs of welcome, and we are told later that the village was the scene of a brutal massacre a few weeks later. However, herein we have the rub. The Notorious Mr. Bout exists only in hearsay and conjecture. We have no visible evidence of the massacres, nor the consequences of the arms in which Bout undoubtedly traded. Whereas Viktor is there, a real human being, his bland niceness a convincing cover. The case against Viktor is not helped by his main accusers who come off as preppy, quiet Americans unable or unwilling post-9/11 to see the looseness of their case.
The line Viktor crosses, according to his accusers, is when he becomes party to the “killing of Americans” – not killing, but specifically killing Americans. The focus remains with Bout and his family: his wife is a dominant voice in the film as we follow her tense wait for the case against her husband in New York to be tried. His victims remain notional, invisible and essentially voiceless. The Notorious Mr. Bout throws some doubt on the idea of Viktor being ‘guilty’ in a narrow, legal sense. Perhaps he is instead a scapegoat for a larger more systematic evil. However, of all the injustices in the world Viktor’s imprisonment isn’t as worrying as the freedom he enjoyed for so many years and what he did with it.