Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crime Stopper's Textbook: Narcos

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, in Netflix's Narcos. (Photo: Daniel Daza/Netflix)

By the end of the 1980s, the Colombian cocaine lord Pablo Escobar was probably the richest criminal in the world, with a personal fortune estimated at three billion dollars by Forbes. During his lifetime, Escobar’s extraordinary wealth and power made him a living legend; he cultivated a popular image as a Robin Hood figure, funded Medellin’s celebrated football team, ran for political office, and, when the time came to cut a deal with the law-enforcement officials trying to bring him down, negotiated not only his surrender and a reduced sentence but persuaded the government to let him build his own prison, where he lived in comfort with a carefully selected posse of bodyguards while continuing to direct the workings of his empire.

Since Escobar was killed in a 1993 shootout with police after “escaping” from his prison-fortress, an effort has been made to construct a counter-legend refuting the idea that there was anything glamorous or exciting about him. According to this line of thinking, the real Pablo, who looks pudgy and plodding in the photographs from his later years that tend to appear in articles about him, was a middle-class dullard whose groveling for public approval and doomed efforts to be accepted as a legitimate leader by the landed gentry disqualified him from the role of noble outlaw as defined by Bob Dylan: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” There’s a good moral message attached to this view of Pablo, and there may be a lot of truth to it. It’s pretty much the view endorsed by the ten-episode Netflix series Narcos, which tells Pablo’s story from the founding of the Medellin cartel to the prison escape that would lead to the manhunt that ended with his death, but a single image embedded in the show suggests that it may not be the whole truth.

In the second episode, Pablo, who keeps the cops in line with a policy of what he calls “silver or lead”—a choice between accepting his bribes or going on his kill list—barges into the police station to confront a paid-off officer who, like the star of a teenybopper sitcom who’s had a hit record, has decided it’s time to renegotiate their contract. In a symbolic gesture intended to remind Pablo who’s boss, the cop runs Pablo through the system and has him pose for a mug shot, and then we see the actual Escobar’s actual mug shot. He barely looks like the older, heavier Escobar of just a few years later: his bright eyes and ear-to-ear grin are defiant and gleeful, the face of a man who’s eager to take on the world, and not because of any self-destructive impulses, but because he’s sure he can win. (He bears a striking resemblance to a well-known photo of the beloved rock critic Lester Bangs, sitting on a couch in a squalid apartment that looks as if a tornado just went through it, smiling as if certain that the world is his.)

That photo is the high point of Narcos, and nothing that the director, José Padilha, or the writer, Chris Brancato, have come up with by themselves is half as tantalizing. After the real, young Escobar’s face is gone from the screen, Pablo goes back to being Wagner Moura, a Brazilian actor in his late thirties who’s made up to look like the older Escobar throughout the entire series, and who mostly exudes an opaque, bland thuggishness. It’s not just the this Escobar can’t sustain a viewer’s interest over the course of ten hours, but that the show itself doesn’t seem to know him. A fellow cartel member (Luis Guzman) says that Pedro has to keep pushing his luck and instigating chaos because “He’s only comfortable at war,” and while that could serve to explain much of the plot, it doesn’t tie in with anything coming through in Moura’s performance. Narcos is full of tawdry, exploitation-movie elements: bloody killings galore, with close-ups of men with their heads blown open; a woman in red underwear tied to a bed and gasping with fear and pleasure as a man caresses her thighs with a gun; a prostitute who’s been serving as a police informant whimpering as a group of men postpone murdering her so they can take turns raping her. But Padilha’s graceless, obvious direction negates any dirty excitement while shoveling the unpleasantness right into your face. It’s self-serious pulp, and Brancato’s script features enough clichés and lapses into outright stupidity that the pretense of seriousness is embarrassing.

Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook in Narcos.

In addition to its famous antihero, Narcos has a hero: a blond American DEA agent played by Boyd Holbrook, who also serves as narrator, explaining what we’re seeing and ladling on the tough-guy talk with a trowel. (“Uncle Sam doesn’t fuck around. The cocksuckers paid in blood.”) Holbrook relocates from the U.S. to Bogota after his partner is killed by a cartel assassin. The “you dirty rat, you killed my partner” motivation gimmick had long grey chin whiskers when it was used in the pilot of Miami Vice more than thirty years ago; maybe someone realized that and was concerned that some people in the audience wouldn’t be deeply moved by the partner’s death, so after Blondie and his wife settle into their adopted country, the bad guys kill their cat. Narcos sees nothing funny about positioning this clueless gringo, who doesn’t even speak Spanish, as the hero of a story about the criminal and political culture of a South American country. (In one scene, an informant calls Holbrook to give him some valuable information, and while Holbrook is calling for a translator, the informant has to interrupt the conversation to go answer a knock at his front door. Guess what happens.)

The show, which has surprisingly respectful memories of the Reagan-era “war on drugs,” doesn’t even seem to be trying to be funny when it plays a clip from Ronnie and Nancy’s “Just Say No” TV address that shows the anti-drug First Lady staring blankly into the camera as if receiving sonic transmissions from Mars whenever she doesn’t get to speak. (George H. W. Bush, who inspires less reverence in conservative ‘80s nostalgia brokers, is the target of just about the only intentional laugh in the whole ten hours: Luis Guzman watches Bush’s notorious televised address in which he used a bag of crack as a prop and murmurs, “He’s smoking that shit. I guarantee it.”) Narcos has such a simplistic, straight-faced take on U.S. government policies that are now widely seen as hypocritical and misguided that it’s actually less hip than the average thirty-year-old episode of Miami Vice.
Once upon a time, José Padilha made a remarkable movie: Bus 174 (2002), a documentary about a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro that turned into a Dog Day Afternoon-style hostage situation and media event. Bus 174, which offered a complexly layered take on the social conditions that drive people on the bottom of the economic layer in a tropical vacation site to turn to crime, was controversial in some quarters for its sympathetic attitude toward the hijacker and its suggestion that the police were trigger-happy and incompetent. If that was a mistake, Padhila has not repeated it: he had a couple of major hits in Brazil with Elite Squad (2007) and its sequel (2010), hammer-headed militaristic action movies starring Wagner Moura as the righteous, square-jawed leader of a fascistic police unit. Narcos isn’t too picky about fidelity to history, but the show still barely manages to squeeze Holbrook’s character into the tapestry of events. His on-the-sidelines status emphasizes that he’s there mainly to wise up and see that even the slightest concern for civil rights just gets in the way of the righteous dispensing of justice.

At first, Holbrook and his new partner (Pedro Pascal, of Game of Thrones) are appalled to see that the Colombian law enforcement agencies torture their prisoners; after a few murders, the camera is looking on nonjudgmentally as American officers conduct a waterboarding, and Pascal is initiating an impromptu interrogation of a suspect by shooting him in the leg. Escobar, Holbrook realizes at the end, in a speech that may be the set-up for a real take-the-gloves-off second season, “beat us because he was willing to do what we weren’t. Bad guys don’t play by the rules. That’s what makes them bad guys. Maybe that’s what makes them win.” Having stopped playing by the rules himself, he concludes, “You want to call me a bad guy? Fine. But if you do, it just means that you haven’t met enough bad guys to tell the difference.” If there’s a second season, it will presumably be about the American showing what he’s learned about the need to fight Evil with the kid gloves off. They could set it at Abu Ghraib.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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