Lord of War (2005)

I distinctly remember being intrigued by the “bullet cam” opening scene for Lord of War (which must have been released promotionally because none of the actual trailers I’ve seen since ring a bell). But I dismissed the film when the reviews came out, assuming it to be just one of a string of mediocre Iraq war-inspired satires/indictments that were being released at the time. I did not know then who had made the movie: Andrew Niccol, writer of The Truman Show (1998) and writer-director of one of my favourite films of all time: Gattaca (1997). As soon as I saw this title in his filmography, I knew I had to track down the DVD.

Said opening sequence (embedded below the fold) traces the “life” of a bullet from manufacture to various, increasingly sketchy points of sale. It eventually ends up being fired into the head of a nameless child, caught up in a nameless conflict in a nameless African country. In a scene close to the end of the movie, the main character rattles off a monologue about the military-industrial complex, how illegal arms dealers are a necessary evil and how Western governments are complicit in bloodshed that happens in third-world countries. Both scenes bookend the film and summarise its themes; everything in between – a “bullet point biography” of the main character – is illustration.

Before the end credits play, the film claims it is “based on actual events”. The titular “lord of war”, played by Nicolas Cage, is loosely based on several real-world arms dealers, most prominently Viktor Bout (who remained free and at-large when the movie was made, and was only convicted in 2011); Eamonn Walker’s Liberian tyrant and warlord is not so loosely based on Charles Taylor (who was already in exile in 2005, has since been extradited to The Hague, and was convicted a few months ago). The film depicts real conflicts and, in simplified form, the wheeling and dealing that is part of both the legal and the illegal arms trade, with individual characters standing in for larger and more diverse forces. At times, the movie comes across like a gunrunning travelogue.

The portrayal of Interpol, personified by an honourable “agent” played by Ethan Hawke, is complete nonsense, on the other hand, and feels like the half-hearted accession to a studio demand to “punch up” the material by adding a police element that does not exist in the real world.
The mischaracterisation of Interpol hurts the film immensely, because it casts doubt upon its claim to depict not the truth, but The Truth with a thin veneer of fictionalisation. It’s the most contrived element of the film, adding additional urgency to scenes that don’t need it and giving the audience a “good guy” to root for when it’s the entire point of the film to show us the arms trade from the perspective of one of its amoral practitioners. It may also be counterproductive since it plays into a right-wing conspiracy theory that the UN is some kind of world government aching to take over the United States.

From the outset, it’s clear that the movie has a message it’s not shy about. I’ve read that Amnesty International endorses the film and that some DVD releases (though not my Blu-ray) include a video shot by the organisation that is intended to play in front of the movie. That’s not a problem; even in cases where I don’t agree with the point a movie is trying to make, I can appreciate well-made appeals to the better angels of our nature. And the intro and a handful of other scenes are indeed very powerful on their own. What is a problem is that the film is not a documentary, but fiction, and fiction requires a satisfying narrative arc.

In theory, the movie achieves both its primary goal (getting out its anti-arms message) and is narratively successful, pulling these threads together into a coherent whole:

  • the cat-and-mouse game between Cage’s and Hawke’s characters, ending in a Heat-style showdown between cop and criminal;
  • the symbiotic relationship (twisted friendship?) between a specific warlord and his weapons supplier;
  • the arms dealer’s family, how it grows wealthy thanks to his activities, and how they break the family apart;
  • and finally, the main character’s soul and how it copes with a business that monetises death in increasingly up-close-and-personal ways.

In another universe, there may be a version of Lord of War that got all of those things right. This is not that universe. The Interpol angle just doesn’t fit at all; it belongs in a movie that threw verisimilitude out the window in favour of conventional entertainment, and in all other respects Lord of War clearly does not want to be that kind of movie. And the film is too short to commit to all of the other threads and the gunrunning globetrotting which give it the docudrama pretension in the first place; so what ends up happening is that both the film’s individual parts and the work as a whole come up short.

Lord of War certainly isn’t the masterpiece I’ve seen people extol it as (though a director’s cut without Action Interpol and with more meat to the other narrative subplots might come close, if such a thing were to be released). It can’t compare to the other two Niccol films I mentioned at the outset of this review. But it is ambitious and thought-provoking and visually nice to look at. Cage doesn’t have the material to really excel, acting-wise, but at least it’s not one of the roles he sleepwalks through; Walker is really good as the unhinged Charles Taylor clone. Contrary to my original impression, it’s not a satire, though the film does contain bleakly humorous moments.

By coincidence, I watched the film on the very day yet another international arms control treaty stalled at the UN. Lord of War may not be a perfect movie and in the end, its message may be both a little on the nose and undermined by certain elements of the film. But it remains timely even seven years after it first came out.

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