Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sundance ’14: The Notorious Mr. Bout

He was the world’s best known arms dealer, who shot more selfie footage of himself in the wrong places at the wrong times than a punky skateboarding graffiti vandal. That was not the best strategy for minimizing circumstantial evidence, but it left a wealth of primary source material for Tony Gerber & Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary, The Notorious Mr. Bout, which screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Viktor Bout could be the model of the self-made oligarch in the age of Putin. It has been established that Bout served in the Soviet military in some capacity, but the exact details remain murky. Thought to have been active in Angolan operations, Bout set up shop after his early 1990’s discharge, focusing his “shipping” business in failed African states like the Central African Republic and ambiguously regulated fiefdoms throughout the Middle East.  Eventually dubbed “The Merchant of Death” by the media, Bout inspired the Nic Cage film Lord of War, guaranteeing him bad karma for his next life.

When Notorious follows Bout’s trail from one global hotspot to another, it is absolutely fascinating stuff.  However, the film sort of suffers from an odd split personality disorder. The first half meticulously pieces together the shady elements of his business, including his attempts to cultivate Congolese warlord turned politician Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is now facing war crime charges in The Hague. Yet, the third act largely paints him as a victim of a DEA entrapment. Frankly, that is a much more compelling argument in sex or drug cases that target human frailty than conspiring to sell arms to the Colombian FARC terrorists.

It is rather odd to see Notorious openly appeal the Russian persecution complex so assiduously stoked by Putin, considering Pozdorovkin also co-directed the uncompromising human rights expose, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer (which played at last year's Sundance). Most viewers will probably leave baffled by the film’s contradictory pieces. At the very least, the inconsistent tone reflects dubious editing choices. The story is compelling, but the conclusions drawn are hard to reconcile with the material that came before it.  Interesting but ultimately frustrating, The Notorious Mr. Bout is sure to draw further attention on the festival circuit, but it might want to go back to the editing bay for a few tweaks after screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.