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Review: Documentary ‘Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty’

Review: Documentary 'Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty'

Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera aka “El Chapo” Guzman aka Shorty was only the second person in history to be officially named by authorities as Public Enemy Number 1. The first, of course, was Al Capone. That, and the five million dollar bounty put on his head for his capture, speaks to just how powerful and dangerous the drug baron was, evading the law for over a decade before his capture earlier this year. And for filmmakers Angus Macqueen and Guillermo Galdos, they’ve undoubtedly chosen a great subject for a compelling documentary. Unfortunately, they squander the opportunity with “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty,” and it’s due to the common problem of contemporary documentaries, where the directors get so far in the way of their own story, that any context or objectivity is lost.

The too brief, and yet too long, 90 minute documentary operates from a curious assumption and presumption: that the Mexican and American authorities have known where Shorty was hiding all these years, but for whatever reason, simply chose not to capture him. And so, the premise of the documentary is not really about detailing the life and crimes of the infamous drug lord, but instead following the filmmakers as they attempt to “prove” their theory by trying to track down and get an interview with Shorty themselves. It’s not quite a stunt documentary, but think of it as a less obnoxious version of Morgan Spurlock‘s “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” that does, in its own long-winded fashion, manage to get some results, if still providing little substance. 

In short, yes, Macqueen and Galdos do manage to get to Shorty’s home, invited on three occasions to meet the man, only to have him decline to appear on camera each time. Clearly, the directors have great sources, but how they use them raises a few red flags. The main problem is that Macqueen and Galdos never doubt, or even question, their own driving narrative for the documentary. Managing to get U.S. officials on camera, it’s curious that they never once ask them why they haven’t swooped in and captured Shorty. Nor is there any discussion about the case or cases that might be in the process of being built against Shorty by either government, or the corruption on the Mexican side that might be hindering U.S. efforts. And the filmmakers’ relationship to members of Shorty’s family is almost chummy. While they are rightfully wary of rocking the boat with the very people who are drawing them closer to Shorty himself, men and women who have been part of the drug lord’s operations for years, it comes at the cost of presenting a clear-eyed, hard-hitting documentary. More time appears to be spent with sources leading to Shorty, or his entourage, than with getting the other side of the story. There are no talks with those who have lost loved ones, crime enforcement officials who have witnessed Shorty’s wave of destruction and violence, or even a basic historical context for El Chapo’s rise to power. There is simply no sense of the power dynamics at play within Mexico’s borders that allowed Shorty’s rulership to happen and what sustains it, other than vaguely mentioned generalities. 

And the problems with “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty” are also found in its presentation, which wobbles between serious and glib. Footage from vintage episodes of “Zorro” cross-cut early segments of the film as it establishes Shorty’s tenure as the cartel honcho of Sinaloa, while a barrage of narcocorrido songs, sometimes doubling as narrative shorthand, while perhaps appropriate in theory, continually undermine the seriousness of the central subject of the documentary. Shorty was a monster, and yet, very rarely in the film (except in the interview segments with courageous journalist Anabel Hernandez) is the horror of his reign of terror truly transmitted. As the documentary rolls along, and becomes more focused on the filmmakers themselves, it’s the directors’ sense of accomplishment, rather than any insight, that ultimately comes across.

Perhaps realizing that their documentary needed some more meat on the bone (and this is not a reference to the completely unnecessary and graphic sequence of the killing of live cattle, but might as well mention it now), the last few moments of “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty” are crammed with a montage of Guzman’s wave of killings and violence that have marred the Mexican landscape. But it’s not enough and arrives and too late for the movie that accomplishes very little in constructing a comprehensive portrait of a man who built an empire almost while entirely in hiding. Perhaps if Macqueen and Galdos got out of the way, they would’ve seen things much more clearly. [C-]

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