★★★★★ | The Notorious Mr Bout

According to this new documentary from filmmakers Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, it would seem that everybody has wildly exaggerated polarising ideas about who Viktor Anatolyevich Bout really is. None more so than Mr Bout himself who considers himself simply as a devoted family man and a highly successful international entrepreneur, and the D.E.A. who claim that his illegal arms trading and gun-running activities have rightly earned him the title of Merchant of Death. It seems that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.

After the fall of communism in his native Russia, Bout was determined to embrace the newly permitted capitalist society and so bravely entered the world of import/export. At first he traded in anything he could lay his hands upon, but then hit on the fact he could make even more money by buying up old Russian planes and starting a cargo service in the Third World. As well as shipping produce and home electronics he and his rather dubious partners included Bulgarian made arms in the consignments that they flew around some of the more troubled countries in Africa.

Bout is undoubtedly a larger-than-life colourful character. One of his many excesses was his love of his video camera and whilst it made for some very intimate and extraordinary footage for this film, he also shot footage when he was cavorting with several warlords and some very shady despots, and that provided damning evidence when the authorities decided to go after him. The D.E.A. set up a covert sting operation in Bangkok where it was alleged that the shipment of arms he was selling were intended to be used to kill Americans, so he was arrested and extradited to the US where he was made an example of, by being given an excessively long jail sentence.

According to investigative journalists who had met Bout out in the field, he was really very small fry in the world of arms trading and he did not in anyway justify either the reasoning or the ferocity of the way that he was pursued. The D.E.A. could have felt that they had been taunted by the brazen way he carried out his activities, which frankly were fueled by both his love of the limelight and his sheer naivete.

Bout’s loyal wife Alla is a constant presence throughout the film (the very dated archival footage of their wedding is particularly wonderful) and she dutifully plays along as his supportive partner. As she deals with her husband’s trial she also proclaims her innocence too, but whilst she may not have been explicitly involved, it is hard to believe that she didn’t know what her husband was up too.

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At the end of this excellent and compelling documentary it’s clear that the ‘notoriety’ in the title really split between Bout’s activities but also with the questionable motives of the D.E.A. At Bout’s trial, the Judge made a point of mentioning that prior to the entrapment operation that the D.E.A. had set up, there was no evidence at all that Bout had broken any American laws.

It seems that they wanted to make a scapegoat/example of someone and so they chose Viktor Anatolyevich Bout. This is a distraction from the main picture as just before the credits role, someone makes the point that most arms trafficking in the world is done by Governments trying to help their friends, and this is rarely considered illegal.

Highly recommended