September 9, 2012

Convenient Truths -- THE TWO ESCOBARS

This column originally ran on Comics Bulletin

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2010's The Two Escobars by directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
Elkin: Part of ESPN's 30 for 30 programing, thirty documentaries that explored what sports has meant to American and World culture in the last thirty years, The Two Escobars is a film that focuses on the relationship in the early 1990's between the Colombian drug cartels and the Colombian national soccer team. Specifically it uses the conceit of paralleling the lives of “the two Escobars” – Pablo Escobar, the infamous cocaine kingpin, and Andres Escobar, the god-fearing, clean-living captain of the Colombian national soccer team – to tell the complicated story of the influence of drug money and mafia politics on the Colombian national identity.
As I watched this documentary, I became more and more convinced that during the course of making this film, the Zimbalist brothers came face to face with such an overwhelming moral gray area that they began to lose the focus of the film, and, by the time they made it to the editing room, they were awash in uncertainty as to what story they were actually trying to tell. Because it seemed that for Columbia, especially Colombian soccer, times were pretty good as the narco-cash was flowing freely and the government was firmly in the pockets of the cartels. It was only when the government started to crack down on the influence of the drug lords that things started to get ugly. And when I say ugly, I mean seriously bug-nutty violent.
In the 1980's and early 1990's, America loved its cocaine. We loved it so much that we spent millions upon millions of dollars snorting it up our noses. Because of this, Pablo Escobar found himself awash in millions upon millions of our dollars. Say what you will about Pablo Escobar, but nobody can deny that he used large amounts of this cash to help the poor and under-served in Columbia. He brought soccer fields and new housing. He brought order and a chain of command. He brought jobs and a sense of prosperity. And, most notably in this film, he brought success to Colombian national soccer.
Without Pablo Escobar and his narco-soccer, there would have been no Andres Escobar. The film wants to tell the story of the destructive force of Pablo Escobar on Columbia, but it cannot avoid all the good he did. And this muddles the narrative of The Two Escobars and strains its focus to the point where I started to get lost in whose story was ultimately being told.
Sacks: Wow, Elkin, we've done a ton of work together, talking about all kinds of high art and low art and plenty of stuff in between, but this may be the review in which I most vehemently disagreed with you.
I've now watched The Two Escobars three times, and each time I watch it, I find myself more swept up in the depth of the emotional and intellectual complexity of the story that the Zimbalist brothers present.
As you say, there is a tremendous gray area to this movie, but it's that gray area that gives this story so much of its power. A story this complex, this unpredictable, this emotionally naked and this horrifying could only come from real life, and the Zimbalists do a brilliant job, to my mind, of showing all aspects of this story without ever mudding the storytelling elements.
Produced from both archival footage and current-day interviews, this film has an incredible verisimilitude that places the reader directly on the ground in the tumultuous country of Colombia in the 1980s and '90s, as the rise of narco-traffickers like the infamous Pablo Escobar brought both a period of unparalleled prosperity and unbelievable violence to this small land. Escobar and his men directly or indirectly killed thousands of people – his Lieutenant, Jhon Jairo Velásquez (aka Popeye) is one of the most frightening men I've seen on the screen - while Pablo simultaneously built houses for the poor, constructed sports fields and encouraged the growth of the country's brilliant soccer team
When the soccer team's amazing success crashes and burns in the hothouse of the 1994 World Cup (with the constant threat of violence hanging over the players' heads), Pablo's counterpart, the brilliant athlete and natural leader Andrés Escobar inevitably feels the brunt of the tragedy, a good man whose life is swept away by the chaos that he tries to avoid.
The intensity and horror of the situation on the ground in Colombia was powerfully shown throughout this film, in all its confusing, complex and sometimes strange complexity. I didn't feel this movie was muddled; instead, I felt it did an amazing job of encompassing so many aspects of life that illuminate our experiences. I was on the edge of my seat, even on my third time watching this documentary.
Elkin: It's about time you vehemently disagreed with me, Sacks. I'm a vehemently disagreeable person.
I guess I didn't connect with this film in the same way you did. I never found anything about Andres Escobar to really connect with, as so little of the film seemed to be devoted to him in any really significant or revelatory way.
While it was great to watch the rise of the Colombian National team, from the outset the film linked its success to Narco-money so I knew the moment that source of funding was pulled the team had to crash and burn.
Pablo Escobar's story was interesting, but there was no information here with which I wasn't already familiar.
For me, the film sort of limped along looking for a purpose or a justification or a hook, and, finding none of those, decided to plod on to the end hoping that the story itself would be enough to complete its journey. The Two Escobars is no Senna, Sacks. It is barely even a Popatopolis as far as I am concerned.
You'll need to justify your love a bit more than you have already, my friend – otherwise I'll have to say, “Papa, don't preach.”
Sacks: Hey, Elkin, I didn't know that you were vehemently a fan of '80s Madonna, which seems like a perfect choice for discussion in the context of this movie since I'm sure her success paid for a few lines of cocaine among the businessmen attached to her. But as far as we know, that's as far as the connection goes – she never appears in the movie (though we see Whitney Houston for just a moment – and she actually looked pretty good in her pre-Bobby days).
There are a few aspects of this film that I thought were especially compelling.
First, while I knew that the narco-traffickers, and especially Pablo Escobar, were incredibly wealthy, successful and important in Colombia in the 1980s and '90s, I had no idea how pervasive their influence was until I watched this movie. Pablo is a thoroughly fascinating figure to me as he's portrayed in this movie. He's a true anti-hero. To bring comics into this discussion for a moment, Pablo was like a real life Victor Von Doom, a man who brought some small good along with some horrific evil into his country. There is no forgiving that man for all his evil – there's a special circle of hell filled with men like Pablo Escobar – but his time in Colombia did bring some real and inarguable good.
Which brings in the second reason that I felt this film was so compelling: The positive things that Escobar created allowed certain thoroughly good men, like Andrés Escobar, to thrive in his society. Andrés was a born leader and apparently a wonderful human being. He was a Colombian national hero and a man who would be deeply missed after his death.
The dramatic arc of the movie is at its most compelling when it juxtaposes the good of Andrés with the pure evil of Pablo. At the moment of Andrés's greatest possible triumph, the 1994 World Cup, the evil that Pablo creates comes north to the United States, like a malevolent force for destruction, and causes the great man to fail.
It's not a Shakespearean tragedy because Andrés's flaws do not bring himself down (Senna was a much more pure tragedy in that sense), but it is an undeniable tragedy – the downfall of an entire country, the ravages and pain and horror of a whole society summed up symbolically and tragically in an own-goal in the most important game of Andrés's life.
And lastly, to have Andrés's loved ones, especially his mother and his widow, talk about the great soccer player and see the obvious pain they felt at his loss, was tremendously moving to me. It was hard for me to not see life in Colombia through the eyes of these people who suffered tremendous loss.
So if you didn't connect with this film, that's cool. For me, this film epitomized what I love about documentaries: everything you see is real, every person who spoke actually lived through the events, and every astonishing twist and turn happened the way it was portrayed in this movie. People are complex and morally ambiguous, a society feels the pain of the horrors it withstands, and the viewer feels his life is enriched by the experience of watching and appreciating these events.
Hmm … I guess I'm pretty vehement about this!
Elkin: Vehemence, when applied properly, can be very persuasive.
love that you just compared Pablo Escobar to Victor Von Doom. That may be the geekiest thing I've come across all year. What makes it even geekier, though, is not only do I totally understand what you meant by it, but I totally agree with the analogy.
I also agree with you that this was a film thick with ambiguity and tragedy. I may not have connected to the narrative of the film, but I certainly connected to these traits. I think The Two Escobars succeeds insofar as it allows us access into a world we would otherwise not fully understand, as well as tell a very human story. In this sense, the Zimbalists have done their job in creating a documentary.
They got into the groove on this borderline, you could say.
Other than this, though – we may have to agree to disagree on the final value of this film. I think it holds value as much as it could function as a cautionary tale or a historical document, but I can't say that The Two Escobars has inspired as much higher level thinking in me as some of the other films we have written about in this column.
SacksBorderline, feel like I’m going to lose my mind that you didn’t love this movie the same way that I did. Nah, actually that’s the best part of writing this column with you, Elkin. We’re different men, but much more similar than the two Escobars were. Thank god. At least we have Doctor Doom to bring us together.
Trailer for the Film:

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