By Simon Shuster
November 5, 2015

On a warm summer day in 2012, the filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin drove out to an affluent suburb of Moscow to visit the home of Viktor Bout, the world’s most infamous arms dealer. He’d been sentenced that April to 25 years in a U.S. prison for trying to sell missiles to a Colombian militant group. But his wife Alla was still at home in Russia, and she showed Pozdorovkin around.

The main attraction in the house was Bout’s office, which was cluttered with the odd trinkets he collected during his travels: books on mysticism, model airplanes, some souvenir plates from an alligator farm in Asia, figurines of African deities. On one of the bookshelves that lined the room sat a copy of Lord of War, the 2005 Hollywood film based largely on Bout’s biography, in which Nicolas Cage stars as a drug-addled gunrunner. Passing these items, Alla Bout showed her guest to a cabinet that stood beside the desk, containing a shoebox and some shopping bags full of video tapes. These were, says Pozdorovkin, “a treasure trove” – hundreds of hours of amateur footage that Bout had made during nearly two decades in the cargo business.

Over the next couple of years, Pozdorovkin and his collaborator, the filmmaker Tony Gerber, turned these tapes into the basis for a documentary called The Notorious Mr. Bout, which had its digital release this week. It contains, in Gerber’s words, “a cognitive dissonance.” Here was a man reputed to be one of the most secretive criminals in the world, an elusive “merchant of death” whose bodyguard once threatened to slit the throat of a photographer who tried to take Bout’s picture. Yet all the while, as he flew crates of assault rifles and rocket launchers to warlords out in the sticks of Africa, he was compulsively filming himself at the helm of cargo planes, at arms bazaars in Eastern Europe, and in the entourage of Congolese warlords like Jean-Pierre Bemba, who would later be arrested and put on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The resulting picture is of a character far more complex than the one described in the indictment that got Bout extradited to the U.S. in 2010 on charges including conspiracy to kill Americans. He comes off as something of a goofball, in love with the traveling life and his own childish sense of adventure. Some of the videos show him rolling naked in the snow after a trip to a Russian sauna, shaking his belly on the dance floor of a karaoke bar, and expounding on his mystical “theory of entropy” while he and his burly Russian cohorts make pelmeni dumplings for dinner. Through it all, he seems oblivious to his own notoriety, indeed dismissive of it, even as his name appears in U.N. reports and journalist investigations of the illegal arms trade.

“I think he was incredibly naïve,” says Pozdorovkin, who spent many hours corresponding with Bout and visiting him in jail as he worked on the film. At one point in 2002, when he was already known to U.S. law enforcement as a dealer of weapons to terrorist groups, Bout applied for an American tourist visa and was predictably denied. “So the whole day he’s walking around mad that he was rejected,” says Pozdorovkin. “And everyone around him is like, ‘What the f— do you think would happen to you once you got there? Are you out of your mind?’”

What seems to drive him in many of his misadventures was a “faith in his own invincibility,” says Gerber. And that comes through starkly in the film. In particular, the U.S. sting operation that finally got Bout arrested in Thailand in 2008 feels less like a thriller than a farce. Just the previous year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had used the exact same set-up to arrest another prominent arms trafficker, a native of Syria named Monzer al-Kassar, even employing the same undercover agents with the same cover story.

But Bout falls for it anyway. In a conference room at a Bangkok hotel, surveillance footage captures him discussing a deal to sell surface-to-air missiles to two DEA agents posing as members of the Colombian militant group known as FARC. “Another thing is to eliminate information about this meeting and prepare my name differently,” Bout says in Spanish, according to the DEA footage shown in the documentary. Then, with the cartoonish accent of a salsa instructor, Bout picks an alias for himself: “Alejandro.” Thai police soon storm into the room and arrest him.

The film, which shows interviews with DEA operatives and U.N. trafficking experts who worked on Bout’s case, also sheds light on the ways his reputation was manufactured. “It became an industry,” says Gerber. “The Viktor Bout prosecution industry.” Even as many other arms dealers did similar work on a larger scale, Bout came to personify this business and to play the role of its defining villain. In part this was his own fault. At an upscale hotel in Moscow in 2003, he agreed to sit for an interview and photo shoot for New York Times Magazine, which featured a picture of Bout looking like Tony Soprano with a mustache.

That exposure drew a lot of scrutiny. But U.S. law enforcement officers also seemed to feed the media’s obsession with Bout. “Careers are made this way,” says Gerber. “The way you rise in that particular system is through high-profile cases. And Viktor was high profile. Whether he was deserving of that high profile is another question.”

The film does not provide a definitive answer, but it does leave the impression that Bout is hardly the leading kingpin in this industry. Perhaps more deserving of the moniker “merchant of death” would be the global cargo companies and arms manufacturers that the U.S. has little interest in shutting down, at least in part because they can be useful for funneling weapons to militant groups the U.S. has supported in conflicts around the world.

Among the most famous examples is the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s, when officials in the Reagan Administration used shady middlemen to make secret arms shipments to Iran – in violation of a U.S. arms embargo. “That’s when this part of the military industry was outsourced and privatized,” says Pozdorovkin. “Specifically for the purposes of secrecy.”

The expediters in this business – including Bout and al-Kasser – often used their planes to carry not just guns but legal cargo into conflict zones for U.N. aid agencies and Western governments. It’s often when they ceased to be useful, or became too widely exposed, that such shipping tycoons turned into the world’s most wanted criminals.

For his part, Bout rejects all of the prevailing depictions of himself, apparently including some of the ones to be found in his own home movies. Now serving his sentence at a medium-security prison in Illinois, he continues to profess his innocence, and he wasn’t too happy with the new documentary, says Pozdorovkin. “The fact that he is funny and buffoonish, that doesn’t gel with his image of himself.”

Nor does the character played by Nicolas Cage in Lord of War, which Bout and his wife watched together before his arrest. “It tickled him,” says Pozdorovkin. “But it didn’t have any connection to the reality he knew.” He thought of himself as a globetrotting bon vivant and a commanding business executive, yet he was seemingly in denial over the fact that his work fueled some of the most gruesome conflicts of the end of the 20th century. That denial ran so deep that he used a camcorder to film himself doing it, and stashed the tapes in shopping bags beside his desk.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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