Sometimes, the greatest service a documentary can provide is an unseen perspective. In a landscape where five-second headlines crystallize into long-held opinions, documentary filmmaking can allow for a more nuanced, label-resistant look at an issue. America’s opioid crisis has become a talking point, referenced in Tuesday’s State of the Union free from any practical implementation of solutions. “The Trade,” a five-part series from Showtime and “Cartel Land” filmmaker Matthew Heineman doesn’t purport to be a corrective or some magic key to unlocking the problem. But as a means for empathy and a way to understanding the human cost at each step of an international heroin trade, it does far more than hollow words and shallow promises.
Rather than embed with just one individual or group or take only a drug war framing to the transportation of narcotics, “The Trade” follows a number of different throughlines: the boss of an opium poppy production field, addicts in various stages of treatment, police officials in Mexico City and Dayton, Ohio. The show doesn’t single out any of these as a primary thread, instead showing how all of their fates are interconnected as the threat of highly addictive illegal drugs continues on its cyclical life cycle. Some of these moments capture the day-to-day reality that all of these people face, whether it’s the pursuit of a dealer or the protection of illicit business assets from outside gang attacks. There’s even a matter-of-fact way to some of the on-screen depictions of heroin use itself.
These stories are told with a vérité immediacy that’s disorienting at times and almost uniformly unsettling. To get this much access to people’s lives always carries with it the risk of feeling exploitative. Getting so close to real experiences as people are suffering is an endeavor that always carries with it some ethical responsibilities and murky territory. Heineman brings that almost-painful proximity to his subjects that ran through his two previous notable works, “Cartel Land” and last year’s Raqqa documentary “City of Ghosts.” In “The Trade,” there’s a real attempt to show life outside of the worst parts of these individuals’ chosen jobs and inescapable addictions. Time is given to the families, the victims, and the desperate grasps at hope in an impossible situation.
That offsetting glimpse of optimism is a necessary counterbalance to the most effective parts of the series that show how relentless this whole cycle has become. From distribution to usage to police work, for every tiny victory, there is an army of tragic stories following close behind. (In the words of one officer, “Every time we patch one hole, there’s a new one that opens up.”) By its nature, addiction is something that does not discriminate or relent. “The Trade” captures that by showing people in a struggle to find some sense of normalcy, even if that familiarity comes with a price. Aside from detailing the day-to-day struggle with needle exchanges and the search for money and the trying effect it has on families, Heineman is concerned with showing the terrifying reality of addiction in addition to the all-consuming effect it has on the time in between each period of using.
“The Trade” also examines the many ways that heroin brings out studies in contradiction. Don Miguel — the leader of a full-scale heroin production center — whether by choice or by narrative framing is someone who’s ostensibly searching for peace and the ability to provide for his family in his chosen way. But the series never shies away from showing that his actions have violent repercussions at every step of the way. The various law enforcement efforts on either side of the border are never presented as singular entities, typified by just one approach to combating the issue in their respective cities. In Dayton, we see military-style raids on stash locations, but also see a calmer story of agents tending to the needs of a pregnant dealer, before they arrest her.
There’s also a subconscious debate here on who chooses to, gets to, and who cares about being anonymous. We see gang members choosing to hide their faces while people going through the worst ordeal of their lives have allowed a camera crew to come in and capture them at a moment of great vulnerability. Public officials opening themselves up to scrutiny go right alongside unrepentant perpetrators of violence who shield their identities out of a presumed fear of reprisal. Bringing a window into a very personal struggle is itself an act of bravery, while the inclusion of those masked (who by their own admission are not remorseful of their actions) is a subtle indictment of the series’ villains, even if the show will not explicitly say as much.
“The Trade” illustrates that in this vicious cycle, no one is immune. There might be heartless drug gangs and violent pushers, but this is a set of circumstances devoid of winners. Even those at the top of the supply chain on the receiving end of the profits trade the safety of themselves and their families for financial security. Some of the most difficult interviews are with the husband-and-wife proprietors of a recovery treatment center. There’s an unmistakable pain in their voices as they acknowledge their own path to recovery and their inability to shield their children from that same fate.
And so, “The Trade” is also a portrait of perseverance. When confronted with the immediate truth that their loved ones are denying and suppressing their own battles with a deadly disease, the families in “The Trade” still find hope to cling to. They’re not under the delusion that hope alone will save them, but they come to the same conclusion that these five installments do: It’s a war that has no end, but there may still be a path to survival.
“The Trade” airs Friday nights at 9 p.m. on Showtime.