Monday, April 16, 2007

another late commentary: Lord of War

There's a fairly large class of movies that pique my interest, then provoke my interest further when I read the reviews, but I just can't justify putting in the time, effort, money to go to a theater to see them (especially if I have other ways to fill my time, which I do, or if I know I'll be going alone). So I make a mental note to see them later on DVD. But the mental note ends up misplaced, or maybe it's under a stack of mental to-dos, or maybe it slithered out of one ear when I was sleeping. In any case, the rental store didn't have what I came to get, so I finally watched Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage as a large-scale, illegal weapons dealer. To be fair, by the end of the movie, the question of the very legality of Cage's weapons dealing is thoroughly blurred.

For this is a movie exhibiting a remarkably blurry morality. Viewers who argue that it's pushing a particular political viewpoint aren't seeing the movie as is, like how someone who's been living in the overpowering red glare of a bright sign might mistake tomato juice for milk. Some of the back-and-forth on the imdb forum for this movie would be amusing if it wasn't tragic. Just as everyone watching V for Vendetta should be able to at least agree that loss of freedom is a Bad Thing, everyone watching Lord of War should be able to at least agree that people using huge quantities of weapons to kill innocents is a Bad Thing. As for specific decisions involving many factors, and situations without easy answers, well, that's different.

Naturally, Cage's character, Yuri, doesn't have much to offer in terms of positive platitudes. He does have many short, slanted observations about humanity, though. These observations are the counterpart to positive platitudes: instead of being naively optimistic, they are naively pessimistic. But it's unsurprising coming from someone who earns his cash mingling with humanity's worst. Overall, I don't see his narration as a weakness of the script, but as a window into Yuri's sometimes-disturbingly-accurate viewpoint. His statements are realistic and business-oriented from the start; he goes into the weapons trade after seeing a mob hit, because he figures people will always need weapons - no different than someone opening a restaurant because people will always need food.

The appeal of the movie is likely proportional to how much Yuri's inner contradictions appeal to the viewer. On the one hand, he's someone who gets away with doing what's supposed to be illegal. On the other hand, he's an expert at playing the menagerie of international legal systems so he can't be proven to be on the wrong side of the law. On the one hand, he supplies weapons to people who plan to use those weapons in despicable acts. On the other hand, he knows that if he wasn't selling, then his buyers would still obtain other weapons. On the one hand, he has close business relationships with killers. On the other hand, he involuntarily exclaims in protest when he sees senseless killing. On the one hand, he's practically printing money through being part of a black market (as he says when trying to go straight, the margins of legal work are too small). On the other hand, he doesn't want payment in drugs, women, or other criminal contraband. Diamonds are fine. In passing he mentions that diamonds used to fund violence have been called blood diamonds. Huh, fancy that.

As a conflicted character, Yuri doesn't smile a lot. It took me a little while to guess the most pivotal reason why he continues to do what he apparently doesn't enjoy. He has multiple minor reasons, which are easy to pick out because he narrates them: the money, his talent or knack for it, his desire to keep his wife satisfied, the thrill (he describes his first sale as "over too fast"), his clients' orders for more. I think he sells weapons to attempt to fit himself into a bleak world. He has contempt for everyone, which is why he doesn't take sides by selling weapons to one faction instead of another. His contempt is not only for his individual buyers but for countries, hence his nomadic globe-hopping, numerous passports, disregard for embargoes, and a willingness to sell to those who kill people in his country of origin. By being locked into the mindset that "people kill people regardless of what weapons are available" he emotionally shields himself from the guilt of complicity. Selling weapons in a world that he views to be inescapably violent is both a resignation and a condemnation: resignation because selling weapons does nothing to stop the violence, but condemnation because he is giving them the destructive mayhem they foolishly want. One of the responses to a fatalistic belief is to accelerate the enacting of that belief - it's a way to say "There may be nothing I can ultimately do to stop this, but I don't care! I'll prove how much I don't care, by going along with it!" As the saying goes, "if you can't beat them, join them". Yuri might say "Violence is here to stay. Since that's true, isn't it shrewd to earn money on it?"

In case I haven't made it clear, this movie makes for a depressing viewing experience. Violence, gore, drug use, nudity, and, oh yeah, profanity (in more than one language) are everywhere. The "dirtiness", of what has happened and is continuing to happen, is the point. I didn't find out until afterward that the director was the same one as for Gattaca. Like Gattaca, Lord of War has many compelling shots and it uses those shots to drive home the main point. It represents one big question or issue. I'm not knowledgable enough to offer any answers.

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