Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Isaiah 5:20 (RSV)
Maybe it was because of my low expectations, but I found that I enjoyed director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Sean Ellis’ film more than I thought I would. (I attended the advance screening mainly because it was free.) This is “a true story” based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes.” The two dudes are David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), best friends back in their yeshiva school days.
David has been eking out an existence giving body messages to rich Miami Beach guys and trying (vainly) to score big by selling high quality bed sheets to homes for the elderly. Efraim, after making money through shady schemes elsewhere, has returned to the city after coming across a means to profit from President Bush’s Iraq War. The two buddies are reunited at the funeral of a former classmate.
Whereas Efraim is the bold and brash kind of guy who likely to remove the gold fillings from the teeth of his dead grandmother before calling for an undertaker, David is mild mannered and possessed with a semblance of a conscience—though actually it is his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) who serves as his moral compass. She is pregnant, and so they need the money because no one is interested in his bed sheets into which he has sunk all of his savings. Efraim’s “can’t miss” plan is too tempting, with David soon signing on as a junior partner in the fake company that his friend has set up
The story is narrated by David, and were it not for all of the trial evidence left behind, a rational person would say “this far-fetched tale couldn’t possibly happen!” But it did. Efraim has discovered that the Bush administration, after being criticized for awarding no-bid defense contracts to conglomerates like Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, agreed to a bill that made it possible for anyone to bid on military contracts. On his laptop Efraim shows David a list of literally thousands of military procurement requests awaiting bids. Most of them are small projects, “Crumbs” as he calls them, but with rewarding profits. He has taken as a silent partner the owner of a chain of dry cleaning stores who puts up money for his bids. He calls the fake company he has set up AEY (the letters mean nothing). Soon David is bringing home some serious money, but he lies to Iz about his job with his friend because he knows she would not approve of his selling arms. Both she and he had demonstrated against the Iraq War.
As they take on more and more contracts, their company grows—and we see that the large poster on the wall of Efraim’s office expresses his macho values—it is of Al Pacino in Scarface firing a hand-held machine-gun. However, their deal with an American officer in Iraq to supply handguns for the police of his district thrusts them outside their comfort zone.
Various snags in getting the cases of pistols to Iraq require them to fly to Syria to make an under the table deal with customs officials, and then to escort the shipment by truck over 500 miles of terrorist-infested roads to the army base where they are to be paid. They barely survive this adventure, and a later deal will result in David being kidnapped in Albania and almost killed by thugs who think he is not on the up and up with them.
This project involves supplying the Afghan military with 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, a deal requiring the money of the king of military hucksters Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), whom they had meet at an arms dealer expo in Las Vegas. He agrees to bankroll this $300 million deal, but lots of complications arise, such as the revelation that the ammunition is outdated and, worse, made in China. This is what leads Girard to think he has been stiffed, thus ordering the seizure of David.
The end of the partnership is caused not by this wild and dangerous caper, but by Iz discovering that David has been lying to her. She is as hurt as much by his lying as by his sleazy occupation, so she packs up their child and leaves. Brought to his senses, David …Well, let’s say he finally leaves the dark side. His love for his family overcomes his greed for riches. And a good thing, because the federal government also enters the picture. This time they are not buying, but giving—arrest warrants, and then prison sentences. Efraim has been ingenious in his schemes, but no amount of quick thinking can extricate him from this affair.
The filmmakers’ light touch could easily have made the film a satire or farce, but they do show the dark, sleaze of Efraim. He is no nimble con man like George Clooney’s Lee Gates in The Money Monster, who comes to his senses. Efraim has lived on the dark side too long to return. The phrase from the Thirties struggle against the arms industry “Merchants of Death” came to mind as I watched his greed and enthusiasm lead him deeper into the shadowy world of gun merchandising. The film does not show us the results of supplying armaments—the thousands of women and children, as well as the soldiers involved, killed and mutilated. This is after all a light entertainment, but what it does show is perhaps enough.
Note: In the cast listing we see that the real David Packouz has a bit part in the film: he is the “Singer at Hilldale Home” one of the homes for the elderly where his character is attempting to sell his bed sheets.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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