Home > Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports > Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #7: The Two Escobars

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #7: The Two Escobars

The dark, twisting tale of drugs, football, and murder told in The Two Escobars is a deep tragedy in many ways. The Zimbalist brothers’ riveting, propulsive documentary tracing the connections between infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the similarly-named (but not blood-related) Colombian football star Andrés Escobar gives depth, context, emotion, and terrible immediacy to a shocking incidence of violence (many of them around the same time in troubled early ’90s Colombia, in fact).

But it pinpoints a grander tragedy as a result of the specific loss of the footballer Escobar, shot and killed shortly after scoring an own goal that doomed the highly-touted Colombian national team’s chances at the 1994 World Cup. The incident has been caricaturized by those who would dismiss the world’s most popular sport out of hand, who would paint its passionate fans with the same brush and define them all, but especially those in Latin America, as dangerous, irrational zealots who will kill for on-field allegiances. Smug North Americans will cite the Escobar killing, without details or nuance or even proper names, to dismiss “soccer” as barbaric, all while ignoring the logs in the eyes of their own sports of choice.

twoescobarsThe Two Escobars treats its twin subjects, its dual loci of fuzzy infamy, while tremendous seriousness and detail. The Zimbalists craft a narrative of late 1980s/early 1990s Colombia as a country marinating in the crooked profits of the cocaine cartels, with the larger-than-life Pablo Escobar, chief of the Medellín cartel, presiding over it all like a mustachioed Zeus. Though undoubtedly a ruthless, murderous criminal overlord whose operation sparked a level of violence and terror in Colombia that is almost unfathomable now, Pablo was hardly the one-dimensional villain that the American “war on drugs” rhetoric painted him as being. His associates (including his enforcer “Popeye”, who claims from inside prison to have personally killed 250 people, though “only a psychopath keeps count”) speak of him as a man of certain moral principles and codes that he refuses to transgress, unlike the drug lords who succeeded him. When he wasn’t sticking to this upright code by assassinating judges and government ministers who oppose his dealings, Pablo Escobar was a champion of the poor in the South American populist tradition. This meant using his huge profits from the cocaine trade (Forbes Magazine had him on their billionaries list in 1989 with a net worth of $3 billion) at least partially to build housing for Colombia’s vast underclass; upon his assassination in 1993, he was given a martyr’s farewell by lower-income Colombians at his chaotic funeral.

But Pablo Escobar was most passionate about football, and spent on it accordingly, building football pitches alongside the housing in low-income communities across the country. The Two Escobars also takes as fact that the drug lord funded Medellín club Atlético Nacional’s unprecedented rise in club football, climaxing with a Copa Libertadores title as South America’s top team in 1989. Although other rival cartels funded rival clubs, Nacional’s renaissance coincided with that of the national team, both of which were led by a steady, skilled defender named Andrés Escobar. A devout, earnest, and patriotic sort (at least according to his worshipful loved ones and teammates, who treat him as a martyred saint), Andrés is shown to chafe underneath the swirl of illegality that has at least partly made his opportunity for sporting glory possible. He also engages in philanthropic works to assuage his guilt, but still doesn’t feel quite right about being supported and fêted by a mass-murdering drug kingpin.

Matters come to a deadly head for both Escobars in the space of half a year, as Pablo is hunted down by his legion of domestic and international enemies and Andrés makes a high-profile on-field blunder that makes him a target as well. The death of Andrés is shown to be much more complex than conventional belief has held, not merely a case of disgruntled fans or even gambling criminals seeking revenge but perhaps more than indirectly related to the power vacuum in the underworld that the fall of Pablo Escobar created.

Like the best of the 30 For 30 films, The Two Escobars vividly illustrates the convergence of social forces and sport, demonstrating that neither is isolated from the other in either cultural stimuli or effects. It’s instructive to compare it with Catching Hell, another instance of a single error that affects on-field results leading to mass blame and ugliness. That Andrés Escobar did not survive the aftermath of his mistake and Steve Bartman survived the aftermath of his (albeit as a recluse) might only be a statement on the comparative levels of social stability and order in their given contexts.

But The Two Escobars may be the best film in the series, all told, as it tells its story with gravity and verve. Its documentation of Colombia’s social and political mayhem is painful and harrowing, and the transmutation of that hurt and tension into the glorious, kinetic joy of the national team’s World Cup qualification campaign marks it as a great sports film as well. When the upheaval and uncertainty back home works its way into the team’s game in the World Cup in the U.S., it operates as a disease, a phage that takes victims with virulent mercilessness. Andrés Escobar is not the only victim, only the most prominent, the most talismanic. Colombian football itself, the closing of the film suggests, is the ultimate victim (although the national team will be in this summer’s World Cup, its first finals trip since 1998, albeit possibly without recently injured star Radamel Falcao). The price eventually paid for the meteoric leap that Colombian soccer took under the financial support of the cartels was a steep one.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports
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