The Arms Dealer Who Loved Home Movies
A new documentary attempts a sympathetic view of Russia’s ‘Notorious Mr. Bout’
Viktor Bout took the meeting with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia in Bangkok. It was 2008, and the FARC needed weapons to fight the Colombian government and its American advisers. He needed money.
The rebels asked for surface-to-air missiles and he wrote it down. He was crafting their shopping list—which he intended to fill. It’s clear as day in the security footage.
Moments later, Thai authorities entered the room and arrested everyone. So ended the career of Russian-born shipping magnate and arms trafficker Bout. So began his long journey from a Thai prison to a federal penitentiary in the United States.
Bout is currently serving 25 years for attempting to provide material support to a recognized terrorist organization, conspiracy to kill Americans and conspiracy to acquire and use an anti-aircraft missile.
This was the end of Bout’s storied work as an arms dealer, but just the beginning of a fascinating new documentary—The Notorious Mr. Bout.
Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin directed the film. In the documentary, the pair explain the rise and fall of Russia’s most infamous shipping magnate.
The Bout family gave them incredible access to the man’s life and personal documents. It helped that he videotaped everything. Bout was an early adopter of home video technology. He filmed every birthday, every holiday and every business transaction.
The end result is a movie that borders on a sympathetic portrayal of the man who inspired the Nicolas Cage film Lord of War.
Gerber and Pozdorovkin’s access to this material makes this unusual documentary stand out. Home movies of the Bout family, shot over a 30-year career of shipping and receiving comprise the bulk of the film. Interviews with close friends, family and American authorities give context to the footage.
Throughout all this, Bout’s wife Alla provides commentary. Viktor’s letters from prison help flesh out the story, but it’s Alla that gives the film its emotional impact. She’s been with Bout since the beginning.
Viktor Bout was born in 1967. He served in in the Soviet military as a language expert in the mid-1980s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he turned to business. He started small, importing Western goods and selling them at a markup.
As the business grew, he moved to the United Arab Emirates. He bought planes, built infrastructure and shipped anything to anyone … anywhere. This included weapons. He never denies that.
“I have a lot of planes in the air,” Bout said at one point. “I don’t always know what I’m transporting. That’s not my responsibility.”
But the statement rings hollow, as later in the film we watch Bout help train African militaries. His bodyguard looms next to him. Shirtless Bout poses with guns. He talks about how frightening African militants look in their spooky gas masks.
He sold them the masks. He called it providing “logistical support and training.”
“He’s a fool, rather than a villain,” a former U.N. weapons inspector said of Bout. The man goes on to explain that only five percent of Bout’s cargo involved weapons. But that’s five percent responsible for dead bodies piling up in some of the world’s most violent places.
Early in the film, the directors interview Matt Porter—a journalist familiar with Bout’s case. Porter explains that two narratives exist regarding the film’s subject.
One is that he’s an evil, all-powerful super villain who got his comeuppance. The other is that he’s a stooge of the Russian government and a victim of a grand conspiracy.
Both narratives, Porter argues, miss the point. They skirt the grim realities of the arms trade and who benefits from removing men like Bout from the world. But the documentary never pins down what Porter is getting at—that Bout’s story may lead to a deeper understanding of the arms trade.
Much of the rest of the documentary attempts to present Bout’s view of himself. As far as he’s concerned, he’s just a businessman. He’s in it for the cash. Customers need a product and he supplies it.
But some of the products he supplies are deadly, and—as the filmmakers point out—the Russian slang word for a gangster is biznesman. He’s incredulous at his sentencing. He goes to jail still not believing he did anything wrong.
The filmmakers allow Bout to tell that story without following up too much on the negative aspects of his personality or business. Pozdorovkin and Gerber never take an in-depth look at how the world buys weapons and why. This is the one failing of an incredible film.
To those interviewed—including a former U.N. weapons inspector—they say Bout’s story is par for the course. Someone needed to go to jail over the illegal arms trade. Bout was a flamboyant example. The New York Times Magazine profiled him. Nic Cage hammed up the screen while pretending to be Bout.
Viktor was what the world thought of when they thought of gun runner. He was the perfect one to punish. The guns? They keep running.