Arguably one of the best movies of the 2000’s and Nicholas Cage’s best performance as a lead actor, The film ‘Lord of War’, released in 2005, is a realistic and unfiltered take in the role of illegal arms dealers, who facilitate the sale and transfer of arms trafficking throughout the international arms industry, which continues to be one of the world’s most profitable endeavors. ‘Lord of War’, while nonfictional in its’ story is actually based off of the lives and exploits of different real-life arms smugglers. ‘Lord of War’ is directed by Andrew Niccol, and stars a cast of Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, and Bridget Moynahan.
Nicholas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union, where he and his brother, Vitaly, help their parents out in their Ukrainian restaurant as cooks and helpers. While Vitaly is somewhat satisfied with this simple life of cooking borscht and washing dishes, Yuri wants to achieve the ‘American Dream’ and get out of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he grew up after leaving Ukraine. He struggles to grasp at any real business opportunity in order to get out of the shadow of his ordinary life in Brooklyn.
However, one day when he is dining at a restaurant in Brighton Beach, the business idea he needs comes to life for Yuri in the form of a Russian mobster killing two would-be assassins and fending off their attack with AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles. Yuri believes that there is a lot of money to made in international arms sales and decides to go into business despite the protests of his brother, Vitaly, and the fact that his parents don’t know what he’s up to.
One scene in particular that stands out in Yuri’s beginning as an illegal arms dealer is when he tells his brother that since there are so many McDonald’s and gun stores in America already, he needs his business to be international in its’ focus. At first, Yuri feels that dealing arms is comparable to serving food at a restaurant. He justifies his nefarious business by narrating to the audience that its’ providing for a part of human nature in his opinion, the instinct to kill and harm others, as documented by the “earliest human skeletons who had spears in their heads and ribcages.”
While Vitaly, Yuri’s brother has moral reservations about what Yuri is doing, he decides to join him later on as they crisscross the globe during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s dealing with corrupt governments, genocidal dictators, and other more ruthless arms dealers as their competition. As Yuri becomes more popular and wealthy with the illegal arms business, he runs up against a by-the-book, incorruptible, and idealistic Interpol agent, Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), who tries unsuccessfully to track Yuri’s business dealings down by air and by sea.
Despite the fact that his brother, Vitaly, becomes a drug addict, and is an unreliable business partner, Yuri continues to run his illegal arms business as a one-man show. While a fictional story, ‘Lord of War’ is based off of real life conflicts and real life people who were involved in the illegal arms trade. These conflicts include the 1982 Lebanon War, the Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan against the Mujahedeen, the civil war in Liberia during the 1990’s, etc. The movie does not gloss over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the impact that the end of this cold war conflict had on the rest of the world in terms of arms sales. Yuri is able to become a very wealthy and powerful arms dealer in the film due to his family connections in Ukraine and the sheer weaponry, and arsenal that the Soviet military left unused.
Like his arms business, which is run under false pretenses, he does the same with his love life as he falls for a fashion model and childhood crush, Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan), who he sets himself up with under the guise of a false photo shoot. Despite the fact that his parents don’t know about his illegal dealings, he lies to his new wife regularly, and his brother ends up in a drug rehabilitation center, Yuri does not give up on the arms business because he likes it, is good at it and is unable to go straight in legal business endeavors. Howver, in the wake of all of his ‘success’, innocent men, women, and children get killed by the guns, bombs, ammunition, tanks, planes, etc. that he sells and profits off of. As the film progresses, the director makes clear that Yuri has sold his soul in this dirty trade and it may cost him his life or the lives of others close to him if he doesn’t stop.
In a way, the audience who watches ‘Lord of War’ could be most closely aligned with the perspective of the Interpol agent, Jack Valentine. He knows that Yuri is a bad person and he wants to bring him down, but will it make any difference to bring one sole arms dealer down when billions of dollars are exchanged around the world each year through both legal and illegal arms sales. Like Jack, the audience may question the nobility of bringing down one arms sales dealer like Yuri when there are dozens of them out there, and Presidents / Prime Ministers of the major countries are the biggest arms dealers of them all.
Yuri never takes full responsibility for his business dealings during the film even if the sale of his arms causes bloodshed and death. He remarks bluntly to his brother, Vitaly during one scene: We don’t talk about it. How many car salesmen talk about their work? How many cigarette salesmen talk about their work? Both their products kill more people every year than mine, at least mine comes with a safety switch. Those guys can leave their work at the office, so can I.”
In Yuri’s opinion, he may be evil, but he’s ‘necessary evil’ because there are other people or governments out there like him involved in the business, but sometimes they ‘can’t have their fingerprints on the gun.’ Despite the pressures placed on him by family, friends, and the law, Yuri is committed to doing what he does best without having the moral imperative to stop. As I don’t want to reveal the ending, the first time you see it, you may be shocked but this film doesn’t deal in black and white, and that’s what I love about it.
There are numerous shades of grey that go along with the black and white, and the ending of ‘Lord of War’ falls within those shades of gray. ‘Lord of War’ doesn’t have your typical Hollywood ending, and that’s partly what it makes it such an alluring film. On top of the exquisite directing, acting by Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, Ethan Hawke, etc. and the deep political and philosophical themes behind this film, I highly recommend it.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the film that is very poignant and is still true twelve years after ‘Lord of War’ was released in movie theaters. “While private gunrunners continue to thrive, the world’s biggest arms suppliers are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China…they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.”