Political Film Society - Lord of War


PFS Film Review
Lord of War


 

Lord of WarWhen a film ends with the title "Based on True Events," the impact is much more profound than if the title appears in the beginning. Lord of War, directed and written by Andrew Niccol, is indeed an exposé of major significance. Although the story outline is similar to Catch Me If You Can (2002), which had an upbeat ending and a more delightful cast, Lord of War is clearly a noir film. Voiceovers from Yuri Orlov (played by Nicholas Cage) punctuate much of the movie, which begins with Yuri's factual statement, reminiscent of the tagline of the television series Naked City (1958-1963), "There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation; that's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?" Yuri begins his life in Little Odessa (Brighton Beach, New York City) due to a scam. Some years earlier, his father Anatoly (played by Jean-Pierre Nshanian) pretended to be Jewish to get out of the Soviet Union, but he now runs an honest restaurant business. In 1982, after witnessing a gangland shooting involving the Ukrainian mafia, Americanized Yuri makes his first illicit sale of firearms in a New York hotel room. At one point he explains that there are three types of arms sales--white (legal), black (secret), and gray (illicit). In other words, he starts as a gray arms dealer; he can make huge profits because his sales are not accountable to any higher authority. He has no moral qualms about what he is doing; after all, he reflects, alcohol and tobacco kill more persons than bullets. In 1983, he goes to the Berlin Arms Expo to try to make similar deals, and he wants to become a partner of veteran arms dealer Simeon Weisz (played by Ian Holm), who turns him down as a rank amateur; later, Weisz kills Yuri's uncle to ensure that they will be bitter rivals. In 1984, he flies to Beirut just after the American marine contingent pulls out after a suicide attack; his aim is to broker the sale of weapons left behind by the Americans. During the 1980s, when the Cold War is in full swing, he boasts that his arms are involved in eight out of ten war zones. He confesses, "Without operations like mine it would be impossible for certain countries to conduct a respectable war; I was able to navigate around those inconvenient little arms embargos." In 1989, he is first tracked down by Interpol agent Jack Valentine (played by Ethan Hawke, instead of Tom Hanks) in a ship off the coast of Colombia. Throughout the 1990s, Valentine remains hot on Yuri's trail but plays by the book and never quite catches him with irregular paperwork or stolen goods. When the Soviet Union collapses in 1991, an even bigger bonanza begins, as he returns to Odessa, now part of the independent state of the Ukraine. Some one million Russian troops, once quartered in the Ukraine by the Soviet Union for geopolitical reasons, are now not being paid yet guard millions of weapons. Thanks to Yuri's uncle, a retired general, he bribes the Russians for the arms, bribes the Ukrainians to export them, and becomes an international arms merchant of far more importance than Weisz, whom he now turns down as a partner. He deals primarily in AK-47s, which he believes to be Russia's largest postwar export, though his voiceover sardonically informs that he never sold to Osama Bin Laden because the latter is "always bouncing checks." With so much quick wealth, Yuri decides to fulfill a dream--to marry the model whose beauty he has most admired ever since his teenage years. Accordingly, he buys a hotel in the French Caribbean (St. Barts), clears the hotel of almost all guests, makes a phony offer to Ava Fontaine (played by Bridget Moynahan) for a photoshoot, gets her attention on the veranda, flies her in what appears to be his private airplane (actually rented) back to New York, shows off his luxury Manhattan apartment, and marries her. In 1995, Yuri decides to sell his arms to the dictator of Liberia, André Baptiste, Sr. (played by Eamonn Walker), and soon he is a major supplier to the nasty civil wars in that country as well as in the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, with payment rendered in diamonds, sexy African women for whom the odds are one in four that they are infected with AIDS, and the uninvited murder of his arch rival Weisz. A stand-in for the actual Charles Taylor, Baptiste pins the title "Lord of War" on Yuri, whereas the latter characterizes Baptiste as a "warlord." Baptiste at one point reveals an army of children under sixteen, whom he is proud can kill just as efficiently as anyone. (Presumably, the older soldiers are already dead.) When Yuri begins his business, his brother Vitaly (played by Jared Leto) is his partner, but Vitaly in time becomes addicted to cocaine and is twice committed to a rehab center, so Yuri goes alone on many of his business trips. However, Yuri asks Vitaly to join him on a trip in 2001 to sell to a rebel leader in a country adjacent to Liberia. When Vitaly views a child hacked to death, with the expectation that an entire village will suffer the same fate when the arms sale is completed, he decides to blow up half of the arms, for which he pays with a bullet from one of the rebels. When the body returns to New York, customs inspectors trace the bullet to an illicit sale, and Valentine is even hotter on Yuri's trail. Valentine shares his suspicion with Ava, who has not been asking questions about her husband's source of income, but she is so shocked that she soon supplies him with the location of Yuri's storehouse of illegal weapons. Valentine arrests Yuri and assures him that he will be incarcerated for the rest of his life. However, Yuri coolly informs him that he will suffer no such fate. When the film ends, he is indeed released and rewarded the same manner as Frank Abagnale, Jr., in Catch Me If You Can; his new activities are now coded black. The "Based on a true story" title comes after two other titles and a final statement from Yuri to the effect that in his role as arms merchant (a composite of five actual persons) he engaged in a retail operations compared to the biggest arms dealers of all--the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The Political Film Society, accordingly, has nominated Lord of War as best film exposé of 2005. MH

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