Yuri Orlav (Nicolas Cage) immigrated to Little Odessa in Brooklyn when he was a young boy in the early 1980’s. Besides his parents (played by Shake Tukhmanyan and Jean-Pierre Nshanian) his little brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) came as well. Although the family was Catholic, it was easier to get out of the USSR if you were Jewish, so the family took on that identity and opened a kosher restaurant in Brighton Beach.
One day when Yuri was grown and doing nothing in particular, he entered another restaurant – just as Russian mobsters came in a mowed down some people with automatic rifles. Then their main target stood up and shot the two hit men. It was then that Yuri realized how significant firearms were to people and decided to become an arms dealer. After all, he says in the voice over, there are 550 million firearms in the world; that’s a gun for one out of every twelve people. The question is: how do we get guns to the other eleven?
Yuri takes his brother to a gun show in Berlin and asks an arms dealer, Simeon Weisz (Ian Holm) to consider him as a partner. Weisz turns him down so Yuri proceeds on a small scale. Meanwhile he marries the girl of his dreams, a model named Ava Fontaine (Bridget Moynahan). She suspects that Yuri is into something but never inquires. They have a son, Nicolai (Jack Niccol). When the Red Curtain falls, Yuri contacts a relative in the Ukraine, a military officer, and gets access to millions of dollars worth of armaments and sells them to every country – or group – he can reach that is at war. Meanwhile, Vitaly expresses doubt about gun running and descends into cocaine addiction and goes to rehab.
Interpol has its eye on Yuri and Agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) catches up with him many times, only to find that the evidence is gone and he cannot hold Yuri on any charges. Then when Yuri discovers what a ripe customer the African continent is, he gets caught in difficult relationships with the dictators of Sierra Leone and Liberia in particular. Although his conscience nudges him, and his brother and wife articulate concern over his activities, Yuri keeps going, ever the optimistic, sophisticated gun runner. He does it because he’s good at it. He keeps on doing it, even when tragedy and loss hit him the hardest.
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who gave us The Truman Show, Gattaca, Simone, and The Terminal, Lord of War is a chilling expose’ of legal gun running, based on a true story. Niccol’s films, so far, have invited us to reflect on our humanity; Lord of War, a dark comedy, demands that we do so.
There is one one very subtle sign that Yuri and his ilk will one day have to answer to God. Yuri’s father, though Not Jewish, lives as one. He especially he loves wearing the hat typical of orthodox Jews. His wife yells at him about it, and he says he likes to wear it because it reminds him that God is above him.
Nicholas Cage plays the amoral Yuri with charm, and Bridget Moynahan as his wife Ava, seems at first to be a minor player. But she is the one who tells Yuri when she discovers what he is doing, “I have been a failure all my life, but I will not be a failure as a human being.”
Lord of War is an engrossing tale about the business and effects of gun running that is not illegal: especially the plight of child soldiers much like the recent film release Innocent Voices. Lord of War tells us that the biggest arms manufacturers in the world are the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, and China – all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. But it is Yuri who says it best: “Who will inherit the earth? The arms dealers.” Ironically it is Yuri who says, as he tries to rationalize his activities, “It has been said that evil prevails when good men do nothing.” Believers will want to see this film through the filter of Catholic social teaching. Lord of War is not comfortable viewing, but necessary for responsible citizens who care about people we don’t see. And seeing this film may make us ask about the news stories we don’t see and question just how it is we can live in freedom the way we do in this age of globalized economics. We might also ask who it is that profits from war.
To tell you the truth, I thought that this film was like a narrative version of Michael Moore’s Academy Award-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine that traced the reality of guns in our culture and the culture of violence this breeds.
I think this film is a must-see.
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