In the late 1970s and into the ’80s rudimentary cocaine labs were booming under the cover under the Colombian rainforest. Pablo Escobar was building an empire that would haul in millions of dollars a day.
From the tiny feet of children crushing coca leaves to truckloads of the finished product hitting the streets of Miami -he was the master of manufacturing and exports and a powerful figure in organised crime.
In the latest Netflix series, Narcos, American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) guides us from his rise to his ultimate demise and the often futile efforts to capture him. While Holbrook’s voice-over links together a vast setting and provides an entry point to this most foreign of worlds, his is also the minority language. Around three-quarters of the first episode is in Spanish, with subtitles. If this proves challenging to some viewers they should persist, for the pay-off in drama and reckless characters.
Escobar (Wagner Moura) is an ambitious businessman, who has the police in his back-pocket and America in his wallet. The first episode depicts him moving large amounts of cocaine, hidden in vehicles, light aeroplanes, hidden jacket pockets and even having drug mules swallowing packets of the stuff.
“The gringos will fall in love with this shit,” we learn.
In the early 80s, America was so focussed on stopping grass that coke blew out of control until the Reagan government declared its War on Drugs (Nancy Reagan famously advised, “Just say no.”).
Miami-based Murphy was doing his best to keep the streets clean of local gangs, but nothing would prepare him for the scourge behind what Escobar was bringing in. Local thugs turned into street wars with machine guns. But he relocates to Colombia with his wife, Connie (Joanna Christie). Naively, he has no idea what he has embarked upon, nor how bloody and labyrinthine this chase will be.
“This was my war, this was my duty,” Murphy explains.
Written by Chris Brancato (Hannibal, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Tru Calling) and directed by José Padilha (Elite Squad) Narcos works hard at authenticity. Whilst it acknowledges changes for dramatic effect, it has filmed on location in Colombia, using actors from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. The locations heave in the humid tropics, and the gaudy fashions look right at home.
Padilha makes much use of hand-held cameras to create an unnerving, mistrustful world. Moura impresses as the sneering, greedy villain. Holbrook is, initially at least, yet to step up as the hero of the piece. Instead he offers a cynical perspective: “Sometimes bad guys do good things / Only the cockroaches will survive,” or of Nixon, “We thought he was one of the good guys.”
As part of its docu-drama style, there are also archival photos of victims and corpses which appear to be actuals, without any warning. Thanks for that.
Narcos also serves as something of a metaphor. The war on drugs and organised crime faced tentacles that were deeply embedded and a cowboy nation had much to learn. As America continues the war on terrorism, how much has it learned from history?
Narcos premieres on Netflix Friday 28th August.