Michael Wood reviews Lord of War
From the opening credits through to the very final shot, Lord of War is a bitter, angry, film, but also a very funny one. I enjoyed it immensely.
It’s directed and written by Andrew Niccol, who also directed Gattaca and wrote The Truman Show. It follows the life of a Ukrainian immigrant and arms dealer called Yuri Orlov, played by Nicolas Cage. Orlov progresses from a youth selling guns to local gangsters, to triumphs avoiding arms embargoes in order to supply weapons to brutal dictators.
Essentially this is a farce — we move from one ridiculous and absurd scenario to the next until we reach a truly outrageous ending. The difference between these scenes and most farces however, is that this is all real. Stuff like this does happen. So absurd situations, the ridiculous rationalisations, and the outrageous conclusions are all ones we have made in our own heads.
The film is both funny and horribly serious. Its point is hammered home in scene after scene.
Orlov watches one of his guns being fired at people, and as he watches the film slows down; the sound is turned up and distorted until the gun’s action sounds like a cash register. This is what you hear when people are shot. A cash register!
In another scene Orlov and one of the murderous warlord customers shoot someone together. Orlov doesn’t want to actually kill anyone himself, so the dictator insists that they both hold the gun, and that they both pull the trigger. The arms dealer is complicit in the dictator’s crime, however much revulsion he may feel at killing someone.
Most of the film deals with the various rationalisations Orlov makes to himself in order to blur the boundaries of legal and illegal. It is quite some way through before someone points out that whether something is, strictly speaking, legal or not, is beside the point. The fundamental question is whether what Orlov does is right or wrong.
This question surprises Orlov. It is something he genuinely hasn’t considered for some time. At the end of his career he has long ago left the simple questions of morality behind.
Niccol’s film is an attempt to strip away the rationalisations from the objective process of death and destruction that humanity continuously unleashes upon itself. Niccol is saying, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if what we are doing is right or wrong, and he does this very effectively. By the time Orlov comes to his ultimate rationalisation — that his actions amount to nothing as all the evil would have happened anyway — it rings very hollow indeed.
Some critics have said that Lord of War is paternalist. The film seems to push the point that the developed world should know better than to give guns to African people. Indeed, the “good guy”, an Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke, denounces Orlov primarily for selling guns to poor African countries. We know what’s best for these unfortunate black guys, seems to be his ideology.
But the hypocrisy of this is stunningly shown up at the very end of the film — it’s a twist in the moral message that you don’t expect. Watch it and find out.