A Colombian Kingpin Gets The 'Goodfellas' Treatment In 'Narcos'

A Colombian Kingpin Gets The 'Goodfellas' Treatment In 'Narcos'

3:07pm Aug 28, 2015
Brazilian actor Wagner Moura looks so much like Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar that Netflix's Narcos uses footage and photos of the real Escobar to heighten the show's realism.
Brazilian actor Wagner Moura looks so much like Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar that Netflix's Narcos uses footage and photos of the real Escobar to heighten the show's realism.
Daniel Daza / Netflix
  • Brazilian actor Wagner Moura looks so much like Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar that Netflix's Narcos uses footage and photos of the real Escobar to heighten the show's realism.

    Brazilian actor Wagner Moura looks so much like Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar that Netflix's Narcos uses footage and photos of the real Escobar to heighten the show's realism.

    Daniel Daza / Netflix

  • DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal, left) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) work together to bring Escobar down in Netflix's Narcos.

    DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal, left) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) work together to bring Escobar down in Netflix's Narcos.

    Daniel Daza / Netflix

It's tough to imagine a time when this country wasn't struggling with cocaine brought into the U.S. from Latin America, and the violence that often accompanies it. But when Netflix's new series Narcos introduces us to brash Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar, it's the late 1970s and Escobar is busy with other contraband.

As the narrator of the fictionalized series, American Drug Enforcement Agency officer Steve Murphy (played by Gone Girl's Boyd Holbrook), explains: "Pablo was making a killing in the smuggling business. Cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana — you name it. At the time, Pablo owned half the police in Medellín."

Escobar, one of the world's best-known drug kingpins, built an empire fueled on cocaine sales. His operation has been called "the General Motors of drug trafficking."

In the show, Agent Murphy's partner is killed by a hitman from Escobar's cartel, and the officer moves south of the border to help bring the kingpin down. Murphy is also a device to draw Anglo viewers into the story of drug traffickers, known as "narcos" — he can't even speak Spanish when he lands in Colombia.

The 10-episode series tells the story of how Escobar united his fellow smugglers in the 1980s into a ruthless cartel of traffickers and even got himself elected, briefly, to the Colombian legislature. The show unfolds like Goodfellas meets Scarface, with Murphy providing narration to guide viewers through an unfamiliar world.

"Pablo and his partners built super labs the size of small cities," Murphy says. "From leaf to paste to powder, they produced 10,000 kilos a week. At $50,000 a kilo, that's $5 billion a year."

According to Murphy, the narcos turned to smuggling cocaine in the 1980s after an enterprising chemist taught Escobar how much more money he could make from the white powder.

Brazilian actor Wagner Moura is particularly compelling as Escobar: He looks so much like him, the show often uses news footage and photos of the real Escobar to heighten the realism. In another nod to authenticity, all of the dialogue between Spanish speakers is in Spanish with subtitles. That includes the moment when Escobar lets a battalion of police officers know they can take bribes from him to overlook his smuggling, or accept the consequences.

"Plata o plomo," he says. Translation: "Silver or lead."

But while Escobar was building his pipeline and fortune, Murphy describes how the consequences were piling up in America. "From '79 to '84, there were 3,245 murders in Miami," he says. "And outside the tourist bureau and the cops, no one much cared about that. What got the U.S. government to take notice was the money: billions of dollars a year all flowing from the U.S. to Colombia — and that America couldn't take."

Like Henry Hill's voiceover in Goodfellas, Murphy's narrations are a smooth way to introduce viewers to an unfamiliar world. But they can also be distracting, as when Murphy gets all philosophical about how the ambitions of the narcos were reflected in the literary concept of magical realism:

"There's a reason magical realism was born in Colombia. It's a country where dreams and reality are conflated; where, in their heads, people fly as high as Icarus. But even magical realism has its limits."

And so does some clunky narration.

There's another problem: Telling the story from the viewpoint of Murphy — the only white American guy in the core cast of characters — helps keep the audience at arm's length from the Latino characters, especially the noncriminals.

For some, Narcos will revive the most troubling TV depictions of Latinos as criminals and drug traffickers, despite the show's heroic efforts to humanize everyone involved. But it's also a compelling and complex story, especially for fans of classic crime stories (like The Godfather) who might be curious about how cartels came to dominate the modern cocaine trade.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

A new series on Netflix today is called, "Narcos," which gets right to the point. It's the story of Colombian cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has a review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It's tough to imagine a time when America wasn't struggling with cocaine smuggled into the country from Latin America and the violence it often brings. But when Netflix's new series, "Narcos," first shows brash Colombian smuggler Pablo Escobar, it's the late 1970s. And Escobar, well played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, doesn't know anything about that white powder.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NARCOS")

BOYD HOLBROOK: (As Steve Murphy) Pablo was making a killing in the smuggling business - cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, you name it.

DEGGANS: That voice belongs to Steve Murphy, an American agent for the DEA. Murphy's our guide to the world of Latin-American drug traffickers, or narcos, like Escobar. Murphy, played by Boyd Holbrook, is also a device to draw in non-Latino viewers. He doesn't even speak Spanish. Still, according to Murphy, the narcos turned to smuggling cocaine in the 1980s after an enterprising chemist taught Escobar how much more money he could make with that white powder.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NARCOS")

HOLBROOK: (As Steve Murphy) Pablo and his partners built super labs the size of small cities. From leaf, to paste, to powder, they produced 10,000 kilos a week. At 50 grand a kilo, that's $5 billion a year.

DEGGANS: That's also a massive story. "Narcos" tells the sprawling tale of how Escobar united Colombia's biggest smuggling organizations into the Medellin Cartel. And as he expanded, the DEA and CIA worked with local law enforcement to try and stop them.

All the dialogue between Spanish speakers is in Spanish with subtitles. That includes this moment, when Escobar lets a battalion of police officers know they can take bribes from him to overlook his smuggling or take the consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NARCOS")

WAGNER MOURA: (As Pablo Escobar, speaking Spanish).

DEGGANS: "Silver or lead," he tells the men, "you decide." But while Escobar was building his pipeline and fortune, Murphy describes how the consequences were piling up in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NARCOS")

HOLBROOK: (As Steve Murphy) From '79 to '84, there were 3,245 murders in Miami. And outside the tourist bureau and the cops, no one much cared about that. What got the U.S. government to take notice was the money - billions of dollars a year, all flowing from the U.S. to Colombia. And that, America couldn't take.

DEGGANS: Like the voiceovers by Henry Hill in that classic film, "Goodfellas," Murphy's narrations are a smooth way to introduce viewers to an unfamiliar world. But they can also be distracting, as when Murphy gets all philosophical about how the ambitions of the narcos were reflected in the literary concept of magical realism.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NARCOS")

HOLBROOK: (As Steve Murphy) There's a reason magical realism was born in Colombia. It's a country where dreams and reality are conflated, where, in their heads, people fly as high as Icarus. But even magical realism has its limits.

DEGGANS: Well, so does clunky narration. And there's another problem. Telling the story from the viewpoint of Murphy, the most prominent white guy in the piece, also helps keep the audience at arms-length from the Latino characters, especially the non-criminals. The series also revives some of the most troubling depictions of Latinos as criminals and drug traffickers, despite the show's heroic efforts to humanize everyone involved.

Still, "Narcos," is a compelling, complex story, especially if you're a fan of classic mob dramas, like "The Godfather," and you're curious about how cartels came to dominate the drug trade. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station