Netflix's 'Narcos' is more than just a drug saga

Brazilian director Jose Padilha (left) and Moura. "Narcos" skillfully mixes film techniques from documentaries, procedurals, soap operas.

The story of drug lord Pablo Escobar is epic by definition: The Colombian bandido who ran the Medellín Cartel through the 1980s was the richest criminal in history, with a net worth of more than $30 billion.

Escobar is the subject of Narcos, an astonishing 10-episode mini-series Netflix posted in its entirety Friday.

Responsible for thousands of murders, Escobar wiped out half his nation's Supreme Court justices, a presidential candidate, and hundreds of police officers. At the height of his power, he could demand the government change laws or remove senior cabinet ministers he didn't like. He had the clout to ask the president to resign.

Before he was killed by Colombian troops in 1993, he all but brought a nation of 33 million people to its knees.

But how does one capture such an immense tale?

Perhaps that's why virtually every major Hollywood project about Escobar (played by Wagner Moura in the Netflix series) has remained in preproduction limbo for years, including a film from Oliver Stone.

Were they all made, it's doubtful any would measure up to Narcos.

Intense, enlightening, brilliant, unnerving, and addictive, Narcos is high-concept drama at its finest. In its scope and sweep, it hearkens back to the sort of large-scale mini-series American networks stopped producing decades ago.

Narcos is more than a TV show about a drug lord. It's a unique work that also explores the political and economic context of Escobar's Latin America and how it was shaped through its sometimes-violent interactions with the United States. It lays bare uncomfortable truths about the destructive, if unintentional, effects of American foreign policy and the complicity of American consumers in the degradation of the region.

It's politics, not psychology

Written by Boomtown writer-producer Chris Brancato and directed by a team of filmmakers led by Brazilian master José Padilha (Bus 174, Elite Squad), Narcos is such an effective drama because it defies many of the conventions that govern Hollywood pictures.

Impossible to categorize, the series skillfully mixes up elements from documentary filmmaking, including extensive use of archival news footage; the police procedural; war movies; and soap operas.

Narcos tells its story from a trajectory we usually don't see on American TV: Though most of our dramas fixate on characters' psychological makeup and inner motivations and go on to dramatize their personal salvation, Narcos focuses on how characters' actions affect those around them. Its scope is global, not personal.

 

Escobar's Colombia may be the subject matter in Narcos, but the story itself is presented through the eyes of Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), a young DEA agent assigned to Colombia in the late 1970s.

Murphy addresses us directly throughout the series with voice-overs that introduce the major players and explain the action. Some viewers may be put off by the first episode, which has an overwhelming documentary feel and makes extensive use of voice-overs. (The voice-overs virtually disappear in the later episodes.)

In these voice-overs, Murphy doesn't simply tell us that Escobar's cocaine was processed from coca plants he smuggled from Chile. The DEA agent also explains the political lay of the land in the mid-1970s, when Chile was ruled by the Richard Nixon-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Commies or drug lords?

Narcos is at its satirical best when it shows the strange mixture of zealotry and political naivete that led decision-makers to craft American policy. Murphy and his DEA partner, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), spend a good deal of their time and energy trying to get resources to fight the War on Drugs - a war declared by a succession of presidents from Nixon to Ronald Reagan.

They are thwarted by the CIA and the military, who insist the war on communism is far more important.

Murphy and Peña's superiors take it as given that leaders everywhere look at the world as a struggle between communism and democracy. They are baffled when Escobar runs for the Colombian Senate on a left-wing ticket. And they refuse to believe the drug lord brokered deals with both right-wing leaders and communist rebels. They threaten to fire Murphy when he explains that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was one of Escobar's biggest drug distributors. Noriega, one CIA boss says, is a dedicated freedom fighter.

Clean up your own house

Narcos is shot through with a winning mixture of the tragic and comic. It's savagely funny when it looks at the contradiction at the heart of America's relationship with drugs. We spend billions fighting drug lords, yet we also are the biggest consumers of their stuff.

There's a scene in one of the later episodes that beautifully captures the surreal nature of America's War on Drugs.

It's 1990 and Colombia's newly elected president, César Gaviria (Raúl Méndez), is meeting with U.S. Ambassador Noonan (Danielle Kennedy) about the ongoing war between drug cartels and Gaviria's government. Noonan pushes Gaviria hard to accept military support from American troops, telling the president his country has spiraled out of control.

Gaviria looks at the American with pity, and says, "According to the latest study, 660 tons of cocaine was consumed in the U.S. last year. Perhaps if your resources were focused at home, we'd all be better off."


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