domingo, 28 de agosto de 2016

'The Michael Jordan of criminals': how Narcos found a true villain in Pablo Escobar

As the gripping Netflix drama returns, we meet the cast in Colombia to discuss drugs, criminality, and seeking out the man behind the myth.




Murder. Shootouts. Betrayal. Morals twisting until they snap. We’ve seen it all before: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders, Sons Of Anarchy. For the past decade or so TV has been inundated with moody crime sagas. When Narcos debuted on Netflix last year, it could easily have been dismissed as just another one. But Narcos always had an ace up its sleeve. There are criminals. And then there is Pablo Escobar.
If fictional, Escobar’s story would seem absurd. At his peak, the Colombian drug lord is said to have been worth in the region of $30bn – around the same as Warren Buffett, adjusted for inflation. He was so rich he offered to pay off Colombia’s national debt. Escobar’s Medellín drug cartel was responsible for 80% of the global cocaine trade, raking in such colossal quantities of money that it spent $2,500 a month just on rubber bands to bunch banknotes together. Making money faster than he could launder it, Escobar allegedly buried it in barrels. Rumours of immense stashes persist to this day.
ck, and the hunt for Escobar is closing in.
Filmed in the streets, buildings and rainforests of Colombia, with dialogue in English and Spanish, Narcos feels sleekly authentic: action scenes are captured vérité-style, expansive wide shots making full use of the grandeur of the country. The Guide has been invited to poke around a few of its sets, and the devil seems to be in the detail: rather than using a soundstage, a cocaine lab in season two has been built into a disused factory in Bogotá’s centre: bricks of “cocaine” stacked against every wall, heaps of the white stuff on tables – it’s usually milk powder, if you’re interested – and equipment bubbling away into labyrinthine webs of pipes and flasks. (“Could we actually make cocaine here?” says a production designer. “Sure!”) For a US show it feels international, hurling viewers onto the very same streets where many of the things you see in the show actually happened.
All this authenticity would be for nothing, though, without the right man playing Escobar. For Narcos, Brazilian actor Wagner Moura has been handed the task of portraying “El Patrón”. Moura was a gamble. But director José Padilha offered him the role after the two worked together on Brazilian cop drama Elite Squad. The problem was, Moura didn’t any speak Spanish. When playing Escobar in a show in which half the dialogue is Spanish, this was a concern. So Moura spent months away from his family in Medellín on a Spanish-language course. Worried that he didn’t look like the pot-bellied Pablo, he piled on 40lbs (“You just eat delicious things. So I did that professionally”).
He read everything about the drug lord he could find. Gradually, he sculpted his own version of Escobar, as a cool, collected leader prone to bursts of terrifyingly pragmatic violence. “I didn’t try to imitate Pablo or be like him. I just tried to learn as much as I could,” says the actor. Despite his Brazilian accent causing mockery among some Colombians, Moura created a compellingly complex villain – one whose actions were made all the more shocking by their proximity to historical fact.




Because, for all his “man of the people” posturing, Escobar was no Robin Hood. In 1989, he masterminded the bombing of Avianca flight 203 – killing all 107 people on board – just to assassinate one presidential candidate, whom he later discovered didn’t even get on the plane. Escobar is said to be responsible for around 7,000 deaths. For years, there was war on the streets of Colombia. To some Escobar was a saint. To most he will always be a monster. This is the quandary Moura and Narcos wrestle with.
Moura is at pains to avoid portraying Escobar as the shark-eyed bogeyman he could be in a lazier series. “It was important not seeing him as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, because we all have that shit in ourselves. We just don’t allow that part to go further.” You never agree with Pablo’s actions, but they never seem like a jarring and abrupt moral volte-face, either. Moura’s Escobar is a family man, a friend, many of his worst actions driven by worry and weakness. His wife Tata (Paulina Gaitán) is a huge and perennial influence. “Even Osama bin Laden was a human being, you know?” says Moura. “He had people who liked him. He had family. In the neighbourhood Pablo built, he’s still loved. And how could you blame those people? When your government doesn’t give you anything and some guy says, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give you a house,’ how can you not like him?”
This blurred line between good and evil extends to the desperate pursuit of Escobar by DEA agents Steve Murphy (American actor Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal, best known for meeting a grisly end thanks to some thumbs as Prince Oberyn in Game Of Thrones). Narcos shows their fascinating, Zero Dark Thirty-esque mission, not to arrest Escobar, but to kill him. Idealistic and wanting to single-handedly solve the Colombian drug crisis, Murphy (who also acts as the series’ narrator) moves to Colombia, unprepared for the extent to which rules are routinely bent, while his reluctant new partner Peña, more experienced in the ways of this world, has little problem with the dirtying of hands. By season one’s end, neither can claim innocence.
As with Escobar, Murphy and Peña are real people. Both Holbrook and Pascal have become close with their real-life counterparts, meeting them for research and attending Quantico with them for DEA training. Neither are under any illusions that this is a tale of the White Knight of USA riding in to save the day. The DEA has no problem killing, exemplified by the first episode’s brutal slaying of Escobar henchman Poison in a restaurant shootout. There were reprehensible actions on both sides. “Steve’s a good friend of mine,” says Holbrook. “Funny, goofy, got a lot of balls. But is he a hero? No.”
These moralistic greys are what makes the saga of Escobar so compelling – and why it’s been told so many times. As a result, understandably, some Colombians are fed up with their country’s vestigial association with crime and are upset this nerve is being prodded once again. “There is controversy,” says Moura. “We are a big series made by Americans with a Brazilian playing Pablo Escobar. Colombians are sick of narcos shows anyway, even the ones produced by themselves.”
Despite the country’s transformation over the past two decades into a tourist hotspot, the cocaine and Escobar era remains a stubborn stain. “They suffer so much prejudice,” Moura continues. “Showing their passports and people saying, ‘Oh, you’re Colombian. So you have cocaine.’ So you can understand how they’re sick of it.” Holbrook agrees, saying the Colombians they’ve met find it “embarrassing that we’re not talking about a hero, we’re talking about a criminal. But,” he concedes, “it is the Michael Jordan of criminals.”



It’s an apt comparison, and Narcos’ first season would have been remiss not to show some of the pizazz that comes with being one of the richest men in the world. Escobar had girls, cars, planes, houses and status. But, far from glamorising it, we see the grimy depths he had to plunder to get them, and how easily they’re lost. No one could ever say this is a tale preaching a moral that crime pays. Season two deals with Escobar on the run: paranoid, cornered, hunted. Any residual glamour is gone. For obvious reasons, there will not be a third season, at least not in the current guise. Most people know exactly how Escobar’s story ends, and Narcos finishes in the very same way, right down to using the same building where it happened.
The Escobar of Narcos is every bit as antiheroic as Walter White or Tony Soprano, and making you invested in him in a similar way to those layered creations is probably the show’s biggest achievement. There remains something endlessly fascinating about organised crime, and still no criminal is as fascinating as Pablo Escobar. That’s why he still consumes us, and why Narcos will almost certainly not be the last telling of his tale. But it feels like the definitive one.
Escobar also consumes Moura, who seems relieved, at least in part, that Narcos is winding down. Playing Pablo comes with certain emotional compromises, the transformation more than the simple application of a gaudy shirt. “I gave myself so much for this project, for this character,” he says. “It’s a very important part of my life.” The weight of that responsibility will soon be lifted; the literal weight of Pablo, too, can be shed. “I’m excited about getting rid of Pablo,” he beams. “I just want to get thin again!”