The history of Colombia's tattered international reputation is not an unexplored field, but Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's Tribeca Film Festival world premiere documentary "The Two Escobars," provides an original strategy for framing it. A study in contrasts, the movie oscillates between two men with the same last name, a handy connection that helps delve into thirty years of developments. Recounting the rise and fall of notorious drug lord Pablo and the late soccer hero Andrés Escobar, it jumps around. At times, the two men appear to occupy entirely separate planes, but each strand comments on the other by way of implication.
Given Pablo's vested interest in the sport from a financial and personal standpoint, the connection never seems tenuous. Instead, the directors craft a unique rumination on the notion of national heroism - and, in its absence, the disruption of communal stability. With a seamless mixture of archival footage and talking heads, "The Two Escobars" depicts Colombia's declining reputation on the world stage as its greatest tragedy of the last century.
The story moves forward with the swift momentum of an espionage thriller. Its opening minutes contain a grim foreshadowing of the developments that follow: Soccer players grace the screen as the voices of their parents discuss the death threats they received about their children. In a flashback to three decades earlier, the movie introduces Pablo's role in enhancing Colombia's relationship to the sport. A hustler of the highest order, the smuggler raked in upwards of $3 million on drug trafficking when his thoughts naturally turned to the country's greatest pastime.
Other smuggling giants followed suit, giving rise to the dismissive (but hardly subtle) term "narco-soccer." However, Pablo's own interest in the sport comes across as the product of financial incentives and personal fandom. Using his vast resources for fun, he invited players to his home for private games. Thriving on a seemingly hedonistic, coke-fueled existence, Pablo became an icon of Colombian wealth, while cultivating a steady following by donating money to the lower classes.
Admiration of his free-for-all public lifestyle even temporarily silenced the DEA's complaints. That changed with the Reagan-era war on drugs, as America succeeded at pressuring Colombia to dismantle Escobar's self-made empire. The movie follows this escalating international battle in standard television conventions, but the suspense nonetheless remains palpable. As always, the subjects tell the story: "With Pablo," says a former DEA investigator, "there was no restriction."
A brief survey of his background demonstrates how it got that way. His childhood friend explains Pablo's path to illegality as a Robin Hood story gone awry, although the biographical survey contains little effort to separate the man from the legend. Escobar's legacy retains moral ambiguity, but Colombia's verdict on him was final, with the removal of Escobar from the House of Representatives and the launching of the government's full-on war against him by 1989. At this point, the narrative shifts to Andrés, by all accounts an upright citizen willing to embrace his burgeoning stature as a role model. However, with Escobar maintaining control of the game and its players while incarcerated at his personalized "Cathedral" prison, the tension between two Colombian futures comes into focus: Andrés's reputation suggests a safer form of heroism while Pablo's exertion of power divides the nation against itself.
Both men were shot to death by dissenting parties for very different reasons, but "The Two Escobars" concludes with a tantalizing set of theses: That Pablo's death lifted the organizational stability of crime in the country, precipitating the disorganized eruption of violence that led to the murder of Andrés - and that Andrés's death actually had a more debilitating effect on the country. He was "a soccer player killed by Colombia," one subject concludes - striking a self-evident rather than analytical tone.
The logic stands up to scrutiny. A pivotal sequence involves Colombia's embarrassing loss in the 1994 World Cup, when Pablo accidentally scored a goal for the United States and the country lost an opportunity for solace from its indomitable corruption. (A former player says the outcome of the game caused a "psychological crisis.") But the overall effect of this sequence has the lasting impact of a decent "60 Minutes" episode. Despite its investigatory nature, "The Two Escobars" avoids uncovering new information or delving into the cultural significance of the event, instead sticking to the hard facts: Andrés screwed up, lacked the protection that Pablo's drug money had provided, and wound up dead.
With its conventional structure and slick production values, the documentary makes this story seem routine rather than outrageous, which limits the depth of emotional frustration at its core. It often feels as if two stories are competing with each other; the parallels between Pablo and Andrés only intermittently come to light, resulting in parallel narratives that appear to sync up solely when their ultimate fates enter into it. Nevertheless, the documentary provides an insightful means of eulogizing its chief subjects in mythological terms with its vaguely optimistic conclusion: The game continues, and thus so does the struggle.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. "The Two Escobars" opens in limited release this Friday.