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The recent prison escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman makes for an undeniably good story. But there’s reason to be suspicious of the way drug lords use stories to cement their political power and historical importance. If watching political candidates relentlessly underscore their humble beginnings can teach us anything, it’s that all politics, the legitimate and the seedy, are as reliant on the myths of the self-made man as they are on actual policy. Narcos, which premiers on Netflix on Friday, dramatizes the relationship between myth and politics. The series is set during the 1980s Colombian drug war, but it’s more generally about the myths that drug lords, politicians, and cops tell the communities they serve.
Narcos, directed by José Padilha, follows the rise of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, which gains unprecedented power with Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) at the helm. On Escobar’s heels are DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who is the gravelly-voiced narrator of the series, hardened by years of disillusionment. For viewers, he connects what seem like disparate events into a complex network of cause and effect. But his poetic, soaring narration also suggests that Murphy might be bending reality to fit the framework of a good story.
Narcos defines its story as a “magical realist” one, blurring borders between the fantastic and the harrowingly real. Themes of luck and fate are juxtaposed with the very entrenched structural failures of government and law enforcement. The cinematography contrasts striking views of Colombia’s lush landscape with images of bloody bodies strewn in the street. Reality constantly disrupts fiction, as archival footage and photos are woven, often jarringly, through the plot.
But what Narcos might call magical realism is actually an old storytelling tradition: “narco cinema,” a Latin American genre comprised entirely of B-movies about the drug trade. Narco cinema hinges on a deep romanticization of the power and violence of drug lords. It turns cops into villains, drug lords into heroes, and beauty queens into narcos. Underneath all the excessive violence and sex, though, it deftly exposes the weaknesses and corruption of government systems. In the movies La Banda del Carro Rojo (The Red Car Gang) and Salvando Privado Pérez (Saving Private Pérez), getting involved in the drug trade allows men to acquire the economic resources and manpower necessary to escape poverty and certain death. Films like Lo Negro del Negro (The Black of Blackie) and La Reina del Pacífico (The Queen of the Pacific) illustrate how the rise of drug kingpins like Arturo Durazo and Sandra Ávila is a direct consequence of inept law enforcement.
Narco cinema is so valuable because—by sneaking nightmarish images of violence into dazzling displays of wealth and power—it has become a crucial site of transgression and critique in a country where the stakes of speaking out against the cartels are high. By glorifying the cartels just enough to flatter them, narco cinema is the rare safe space where the complex relations between Latin American citizens and the drug cartels can be negotiated publicly.
American narco films, on the other hand, tend to heavily privilege myth and drama over realism. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic prioritizes the domestic melodramas of Wakefield, whose daughter is an addict, and Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant wife of an American narcotrafficker, while ignoring the larger political implications of the drug war. As newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), says, maybe fixing the problem just requires “thinking outside the box.” In the end, the film suggests that the biggest threat the drug war poses may be to the American nuclear family.
Narcos’ Escobar offers a striking contrast to the Escobar of Pablo Escobar: Paradise Lost, in which Benicio del Toro plays the eponymous drug lord. In that movie, through the eyes of the naïve Nick, played by Josh Hutcherson (who has fallen in love with Escobar’s niece, Maria), Escobar is a master myth-maker—an unknowable, unpredictable, and alluring man. But the movie fails to capture the realism of the drug war, even in moments when Escobar’s magical charisma gives way to his brutal side. Because Nick seems unaware of any socio-political context for Escobar’s violence, the film’s pivotal action sequence, in which Escobar’s hitmen kill a handful of innocent people, plays like a one-off surreal dream instead of the kind of daily occurrence regularly witnessed by communities in the midst of the drug war.
Narcos is the first production in the true narco-cinematic vein to come to American screens. Unlike most American movies about the drug trade, it manages to glamorize its protagonists while still revealing the devastating structural problems they are working within. It understands a key dynamic in our real drug wars: the way drug lords and the cops and the DEA agents are all involved in the project of creating and fortifying the powerful myths around them, and they will do whatever it takes to secure their legacy. In the show, the DEA, as well as Escobar, are shown bowing to economic pressures and making unwanted compromises with government officials, all the while fancying themselves heroes and vigilantes.
In his narration, Murphy seems especially intrigued with exploring this conflation of “dreams and reality” in his storytelling. He explains Escobar’s lofty political aspirations—to become a congressman—as an inevitable byproduct of his meteoric rise out of poverty. (“Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country and by the time you were 28 years old you had so much money you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.”) Murphy cannot help but use the language of mythology to ominously foretell Escobar’s fate, comparing him to Icarus trying to fly too close to the sun. In the end, he warns: “Even magical realism has its limits.”