by Nicolas Pinzon
Understandably, Hollywood directors like Oliver Stone have been trying to tell Escobar’s story for decades, but Probably the best representation of the drug lord that Americans have been exposed to came in the form of the documentary 30 for 30 - The Two Escobars. Yet a documentary tells us the facts; our curiosity wants to see the methods. We want to see the man at work: thinking, laughing, killing, living. That is the first place where Narcos goes terribly wrong.
In the Netflix original series, Escobar’s story is not told through his eyes or through the eyes of the people around him, but through the eyes of a dreadful American DEA agent. This very uninteresting man will narrate about 30% of what you see on screen, spelling out for you what a ten year old would probably not understand, but most of us over that age would be fine with. If what we’re all curious about is Escobar, why did Netflix decide to filter it all through the perspective of an unremarkable DEA agent? I don’t get it.
In all fairness, Narcos can be very interesting for someone who isn’t familiar with the Pablo Escobar story, but this is simply because the source material is so over-the-top. The series begins with a paraphrased statement from Colombian writer and Noble laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said that Colombia was a country in which the truth was stranger than fiction. This statement is very true for the series as well. Admittedly, Narcos only claims to be 50% based on truth, and that is the only percentage that works in the show. There is nothing wrong with changing the story a bit for dramatic purposes, but Narcos doesn’t do that, Narcos changes the story simply to be able to fit 20 years of war into 10 episodes. As a result a complex story of multiple struggles and twists is turned into a shallow, voiceover frenzy of telling and not showing.
Undoubtedly, the Netflix series is trying to appeal to three very specific markets at once: the American market (by telling the story through the eyes of an American,) the Colombian/Spanish market (by setting the story in Colombia and using Spanish throughout,) and the Brazilian market (by casting a famous Brazilian actor as Pablo Escobar, using a Brazilian director, and flavoring the series with mostly Brazilian music.) In my opinion, this preference of internationality over authenticity is another major mistake. Though I have no problem with Brazilian Jose Padilha directing the series, as a Spanish speaker, I must confess that Wagner Moura’s performance as Pablo Escobar greatly affected my experience with the show and I would equate it to hearing a young Arnold Schwarzenegger voice Al Capone. Yes, German is similar to English like Portuguese is similar to Spanish, but the idea that someone who has only been studying the language for a few months will sound like a native speaker is laughable. Netflix should have concentrated more in making a good narrative story than in check marking every major group in the Americas. Taking into account all the nationalities of the actors attempting the Medellin accent, I’m surprised more Canadians weren’t involved. Maybe for season 2. If you don’t speak Spanish, you’re in luck, but if you do, the inconsistency in accents throughout Narcos will probably be very distracting.
Ultimately, Narcos doesn’t commit to anything. Though the story surrounding Colombia in the time of Escobar is one of, passion, loss, greed, bravery, hate, love, and numerous other powerful emotions, Padilha’s Narcos is totally impersonal and distant. Great Mafia films such as The Godfather, Goodfellas or Scarface are all grounded in strong emotional backbones of friendship or family or love, but the Netflix original series remains stale through the narration of an outsider who rarely seems connected to the core of the story. If you happen to speak Spanish or know much about what happened in Colombia during the 80s and 90s, the experience watching this show will probably be terrible, but if you are just learning about the subject, this show will likely be an average one. Either way, taking into account the quality of the source material, Narcos should receive a failing grade for missing such a clear opportunity. Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal, is a very good though not perfect Colombian series also on Netflix that explores the same story in over 70 episodes and gives a much more authentic picture of who Escobar was, his complexities, his cheerful personality, and all the tragedies he brought upon a people who, like the rest of us, only wanted to live in peace. If you really want to know the man, I recommend you watch that instead.
I give Narcos 2 out of 5 stars for its great cinematography.