I've got a confession to make: I find Narcos relaxing. It’s weird, I know it's weird, but I can’t help it. The sweet notes of Rodrigo Amarante's "Tuyo" overlaying the opening credits, mixed with Boyd Holbrook’s gritty narration (the weirdest bit) puts me in a zen-like state. My friends laugh at me. My family have disowned me. But this is part of a wider issue, and not my own personal neurosis — the issue of romantizing Pablo Escobar, the world's most infamous drug kingpin.
American Made is another release that fits the archetype of this "issue." Although not directly related to the trials and tribulations of Pablo directly, it takes place in the midst of the Medellín Cartel's rise to power. Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise portrays Barry Seal, a real life drug smuggler and informant who rubbed shoulders with Pablo and his crew in the late '70s, early '80s.
While not as relaxing and spiritually enhancing as Narcos, #AmericanMade is still a highly polished, glamorized account of drug trafficking. That's not inherently bad; it's an enjoyable, popcorn-crunching true tale that most screenwriters would be delighted to have imagined themselves. But the depiction of this era in South America is one that Hollywood keeps returning to, again and again, blurring the white line between real criminals and the fictional Tony Montanas.
Tom Cruise Controls The World Of Barry Seal
It's telling that Cruise's finest, most energized performance in a number of years is the result of dipping into the rose-tinted nostalgia of Colombia's cartel. In #AmericanMade, Seal is a former Trans World Airlines pilot, recruited by CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take stealth photographs over South America with a specialized plane. Due to his reliability, Schafer later asks him to act as a courier between Panama and the US.
Swapping the tailor-suited monotony of his previous life for the high-risk, high-reward life of stealth operation, Seal becomes rejuvenated. This is typified by American Made's steamy sex scene, when Barry makes love to his wife, Lucy, in the cockpit (behave!) of an airplane. It's a moment of careless abandon that could mirror Cruise's renewed creative energy following the disappointment of The Mummy.
Seal eventually gets tapped by the cartel to smuggle drugs in a lucrative deal that sets off a serendipitous chain of informing, double crossing and money-making for all players on both sides of the war on drugs. Events unfold with the buzz and showy fanciness of a high-class dinner party fuelled with powder supplied by Pablo. Cruise, with his million dollar smile and ability to charm the coldest of cold-blooded cartel members, is on his alluring top form, elevating Seal's cinematic presence.
The Ever-Present Presence Of Escobar
Pablo himself appears in a number of scenes, coincidentally played by Narcos actor Mauricio Mejía (he plays Carlos Castaño in the Netflix show). The name alone gives him an air of authority, Mejía's performance becoming a fictionalized cameo. Last year, The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston, did much the same. And then, like Narcos, there are shows that put the entire focus on Don Pablo — he's played by Benicio del Toro in 2014's Escobar: Paradise Lost, and Javier Bardem in the soon-to-be-released Loving Pablo.
It's not hard to see why films, television shows and documentaries are so drawn to Escobar. The stats alone remain fascinating, almost 25 years after his death. At its most powerful, the Medellín Cartel had 750,000 "employees," one way or another — more than FedEx, Google and Domino combined (a fact Netflix used in Narcos promotion). By supplying 80 percent of the world's cocaine, the organization generated around $420 million. Weekly. That equates to just shy of $22 billion per year, explaining Pablo's estimated wealth of $30 billion.
The trouble is, constant repetition of his story, from a multitude of angles (Narcos simultaneously humanizes Pablo while showing the DEA's attempt to overthrow him, Loving Pablo takes a romantic slant, looking at Escobar's relationship with his mistress), directly or indirectly focusing on Escobar and the culture around him repackages history as something fictional. Doug Liman's American Made is a good illustration of this, like The Wolf of Wall Street for drug trafficking. It almost makes the whole industry look like a fun place to be.
But Escobar was far from an antihero, far from fun. Sure, he was human, but he was also a cold-blooded killer, responsible for the deaths of thousands of those who got in the way of his empire. In an interview with Variety, Robert Mazur, the man who Cranston portrays in The Infiltrator, provides some insight on the individual behind the persona while discussing the fate of Gerardo Moncada, a cartel member whom Escobar suspected of betrayed him:
"He was hung by his feet. They stripped his clothes off and used blow torches to melt the skin off his body. And then they chopped him up. Then they burned him up. They did that to him, his brother William, and probably a dozen other people."
It's no surprise Narcos, the deepest dive into Escobar's story, was accused of trivializing the man capable of the above depravity. Escobar's own son spoke out against the show, claiming that it "glorified criminals" and turned his father into a "hero," portraying him as a Robin Hood-like figure. Now in its third season, the show has moved on to the Cali Cartel, who replaced the gap in power after Pablo's death in 1993.
The preparation of Narcos Season 3 has highlighted the dark underbelly of the world it has been accused of glorifying. Earlier this month, the location scout for the show was shot and killed in Mexico — a sign that bloodshed is far from a distant memory. That sparked comment from Escobar's brother, Roberto De Jesus Escobar Gaviria, who recommended the crew hire "hit-men" to protect them.
Gaviria, who worked as an accountant for Escobar in the '80s, founded Escobar Inc in 2014, a company that deals with the rights of his brothers brand. Last year, he sent a letter to Netflix demanding a $1 billion payout for unauthorized usage, a dispute that still runs today. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gaviria has said that if he doesn't receive payment he will "close their little show." Just don't expect Hollywood to follow suit.
Do you agree that Hollywood glamorizes Pablo Escobar?