Lord of War (review)

Sympathy for the Devil?

Funny? Sure, Lord of War is funny. Funny like how you’re not sure whether that headline is from Reuters or The Onion. Funny like how Jon Stewart has to insist that what he’s about to tell you really happened and is not the invention of his team of political wagsters. Satirical? Sure, Lord of War is satirical. Satirical like the front page of The New York Times is satirical. Satirical like how, at the end of Andrew Niccol’s black comedy about a relatively small-time freelance arms dealer, he tells us that the biggest arms dealers in the world are the nations that are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

So go on and laugh at Lord of War. Laugh until you cry.
If I’d known in advance that this was an Andrew Niccol film, I’d have been prepared for that kind of reaction from myself, because his other films that I love love love — GATTACA, which he wrote and directed, The Truman Show, which he wrote — are just-barely-satires that make you wanna laugh… okay, chuckle uncomfortably at their social and technological extrapolations that are absurd and yet only just a smidge exaggerated from today’s world, until you cry to think that we may be on a course toward them. And yet both films are ultimately optimistic: Ethan Hawke and Jim Carrey triumph over The System to assert their basic, decent, worthy humanity.

Nicolas Cage? Not so much. With a cheerful amorality that might be hilarious if we couldn’t just turn on the news to see real people wielding real power acting the same way, his Yuri Orlov redistributes guns, grenades, tanks, helicopter gunships, whatever he can get his hands on, from anyone who’s selling (disgruntled generals in the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union, the American government, which, Jesus Christ, sells secondhand AK-47s by the kilo to whoever wants ’em) to anyone who’s buying (African warlords with a genocide habit to feed, for instance), making a hefty profit for himself. Yuri does not triumph over The System — he is a hidden cog in it, a willing middleman between “respectable” corporate and governmental powers and bloodthirsty maniacs. With the shift from sci-fi speculation to gritty reality, it’s as Niccol has to admit that humanistic optimism has less place in the here and now than it has in fantasy: Lord of War is a cynical nod to the entrenched implacability of The System; the world with which we’re all actually stuck is harsher than even the darkest dystopias we can invent.

I don’t mean the suggest that the film’s cynicism is a bad thing, a negative attribute. How can you not be cynical in the face of this? You can marvel at the bullet’s eye view of the world with which Niccol opens the film, a dazzlingly visual depiction of mechanized, manufactured death that presages the soaring visual cleverness and bitter wit the entire film will embrace — this is a filmmaker who is only just beginning his career, who makes great leaps of brilliance with every film — but it hits you in the gut in a way that makes you despair at the same time, that detached cynicism is the only way to approach this horror if you want to retain your sanity.

You almost can’t get your brain around Yuri’s audacity, however much you know it’s based on fact. Sure, he starts out small, his 20-year rise as an arms dealer beginning in relative poverty as a Ukrainian immigrant to New York in the early 80s. But in the political chaos of 1990s Eastern Europe, he makes a killing — pun intended — on the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting fire sale on weapons a nonexistent government didn’t need. Lord of War‘s grim grace is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s best work, but Yuri makes goodfella Henry Hill look like a small-time hood. Forget the Lufthansa heist about which Henry was so excited: Yuri participates in the removal of $32 billion in weapons from the Ukraine alone, what he calls “one of the greatest heists of the 20th century.”

Yuri is an invention, of course, but those $32 billion in weapons really are now in the hands of people who use them with impunity: terrorists, dictators, very bad people indeed. This may well be Cage’s (National Treasure, Adaptation) best work: he manages to wrangle just a little bit of sympathy for his devil from us while at the same time — with a sly grin and the kind of captivating charisma he’s rarely exhibited onscreen before — shames us for the complicity we all share in his crimes in creating a world that allows someone like him to thrive.

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