Friday, March 07, 2014

True/False 2014: Merchants of Some Death

The Notorious Mr. Bout

I saw a confluence of films surrounding the problem of violence and culpability for violence this year. There are always a steady stream of these kinds of movies at True/False. The world is always going to hell in a handbasket somewhere on the planet; that's manna for documentary filmmakers. Filmmakers aren't the only opportunists out there, though, and sometimes filmmakers cross paths with those other opportunists.

The Notorious Mr. Bout

The Notorious Mr. Bout (2014, directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin) concerns itself with the world's most notorious arms dealer, one Viktor Bout, as his trial on charges of conspiracy to sell weapons to the Farc, to be used at least in part to kill American DEA busybodies. From there, the film follows the trail back to Bout's early years as a cashiered Russian soldier trying to do business in the new world of post-Soviet Russia. Bout is a consummate opportunist, but is he really "The Merchant of Death?" as his reputation would have it? This is a film that casts a fair amount of shade on that notion.

Bout comes off simultaneously as both a stereotype of a Russian "businessman" and as a wide-eyed tourist as he takes his business across the world, starting in Russia importing consumer goods before moving to the UAE and Africa where he took any job he was offered. Some of these jobs were to transport weapons and Bout wasn't picky about who bought his services. Was he a systematic arms dealer? The people who knew him say no. One of his acquaintances takes umbrage at the notion that Bout was "The Merchant of Death" or "The Lord of War." "He's maybe the merchant of some death," he says. Still, it's the reputation that matters, and there are all of those touristy photographs in which Bout hobnobs with African warlords.

It's worth noting that the film is clear-eyed when it comes to the meaning of "businessman" in Russia. Russian gangsters are "businessmen." "Business" can be any thing, legitimate or not. Inside Russian businessmen beat the hearts of robber barons. Bout is no different. 9/11 did more than the DEA sting to put Bout out of business. Given his reputation, it was inevitable that he would become a casualty of the War on Terror, painted as the arsenal of al Qeada, etc. The movie suggests that these are tall tales. It has particular scorn for Lord of War, the Nicolas Cage film allegedly based on Bout. Multiple subjects openly mock the film.

The form all of this takes is as a parade of archival footage from the Bouts themselves supplemented with interviews. Like many recent documentary films, it sometimes uses this footage, as well as footage and images from other sources, as a visual collage rather than as a straight-up narrative. But there is a straight-up narrative here in the contemporary struggle of Bout's wife, Alla, to free him from the charges levied against him. The defense approaches the case as a clear example of entrapment. Waiting to find out how the trial turns out is only marginally suspenseful, because the verdict is fore-ordained from the opening of the film. Still, this gives the film a plot. The deployment of the archival footage and the decision to rely mostly on Bout's own point of view and the points of view of those around him is a mistake, because there's a vested interest among these people in portraying themselves as harmless merchants. A quick look at Bout's Wikipedia page suggests that there are oodles of salient facts that are either elided by the film or omitted all together. This is categorically a film that should not be taken at face value, but unlike many of the films at True/False where the unreliability of non-fiction is the point, this is a film that could use more hard core journalism than it has.

The Unknown Known

It's tempting to classify Errol Morris's new film, The Unknown Known (2014) as a sequel to The Fog of War. Both films are basically long interviews with former Secretaries of Defense, after all, both of whom are called upon to explain actions that can be interpreted as war crimes. As tempting as it is to link the two movies, to do so would be to miss what The Unknown Known is really about: Prevarication. Evasion. Doublespeak. Deception. Self-deception. Robert McNamara in The Fog of War is self-aware, thoughtful, and as contrite as it's probably possible to be for a man in his position. That film is about what its title suggests: the pall of uncertainty that shrouds and informs the decisions of the men who make war. Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, on the other hand, still lives in the echo chamber that defined the George W. Bush presidency. Early in that presidency, a low-level member of the administration told a reporter that, "We're an empire now. Reality is what we say it is." This is a collection of people for whom the world existed by imperial fiat, where the world was their word made flesh. Rumsfeld still parses language as if that hubris were justified and true.

Like most of Morris's films, this is basically a long interview, though Morris has been making this kind of film for so long and for so often that he's got it down to a science. The tropes used throughout to give the film a visual dynamism mostly work. These are generally suggested by Rumsfeld's memos, a vast archive going back to his entree into public service in the early 1960s. Rumsfeld called these memos "snowflakes," a description the film takes at face value when building its visual design. Snowglobes and snowscapes are the dominant visual motif, along with text as design elements. A positive ocean of text. Definitions of salient words flash onto the screen as Rumsfeld speaks them.

Rumsfeld is a compulsive fiddler when it comes to language. He obsesses about language, sometimes to the point where he lets his parsing of language change the meaning of his ideas. The title of the film is a good example of this: in the memo where it originates, Rumsfeld suggests that such a thing is when you know something but find that you don't really know anything at all. Within the text of the movie, he changes his interpretation to one where it represents something you know but don't realize that you know (this makes more sense to me, but whatever). This is a film full of doublespeak. In another instance, Rumsfeld tells the camera point blank that nobody thought or suggested that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center. Morris then confronts him with a poll from 2003 that showed that 61% of Americans thought exactly that, and then, for good measure, shows one of Rumsfeld's press conferences in which Rumsfeld lies without lying when he tells a joke in lieu of giving a reporter an answer to this very question. And he lies with a smile. He seems like a very nice man. Personable. A friendly grandfather. Is this how he sees himself?

There's a chilling chain of evidence that leads from his parsing of language and definitions of what constitutes torture at Guantanamo that flows straight to the the selfies taken with prisoners at Abu Graib. I'll disclaim any notion that this film is related to The Fog of War. It is, instead, the flip side of Standard Operating Procedure, in which the perpetrators of those images and those action speak to Morris's Interrotron. Lynndie England went to prison. Rumsfeld still lives a comfortable life, though one constrained a little bit by the fact that there are places he cannot travel lest he be arrested for war crimes. The pyramid of justice is upside down.

The vanity of the man is what's most striking. At the end of the film, Morris asks him straight up: "Why did you agree to do this film?" He doesn't get a satisfactory answer, but I think the audience is hip to Rumsfeld and his fellow charlatans. He still wants to spin things. The text that should go with this film is not Rumsfeld's own book, Known and Unknown: A Memoir, but is rather Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit, which concludes that bullshit is a greater enemy to truth than lie. Even to the bullshitter himself.

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