Arts, Television

Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ Redefines The Biopic Genre For The Small Screen

A family man. A leader. A politician. Robin Hood. A bandit. An executioner. A druglord. These conflicting sides of infamous Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar would likely clash as he amassed his fortune and built his empire. Narcos, a new Netflix original series, tells the tale of Escobar’s aspirations and rage as during his rise to power, which eventually made him the world’s preeminent cocaine supplier. With corruption running rampant, agents of  the U.S. DEA enter Colombia to uproot the intimidating drug entrepreneur in his own country. Narcos offers compelling commentary on drugs, poverty, nation sovereignty and a slew of other topics, engrossing audiences in all its licentiousness.

Beginning in 1970s Colombia, Narcos introduces us to Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), who has begun to lay the foundation of his enterprise, making ties and exhibiting his cunning in the budding cocaine business. In Miami, DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) sees an influx of cocaine begin to wreak havoc on the populace. In an effort to thwart the invasion of cocaine, Murphy travels to Colombia and teams up with experienced Colombian agent Javier Penña (Pedro Pascal) to attempt to cut off supply at the source. Meanwhile, Pablo begins producing on an industrial-level scale and turns his sight to other, more ambitious goals, including the presidency of Colombia.

The performances of Narcos feel genuine and grounded in the reality of the subject matter. Based on the real-life events surrounding the Medellin Cartel, the actors give the characters they portray enough breadth to animate them adequately, but not enough to become caricatures of their real life counterparts. Specifically, Moura, as Escobar, is harsh yet fair in many circumstances. Though it would be easy to shroud the character in the sins of his profession, in many cases, the audience may side with Escobar and his pursuits. Moura does well to show Escobar as a commanding and intimidating figure, while not stripping him of his humanity. In many scenes, viewers are reminded of Escobar’s vulnerability—as a man who has come from nothing, he fears that all he has worked for may soon be stripped away at any moment.

Holbrook and Pascal as DEA agents Murphy and Pena, respectively, offer up strong performances on the opposing side. In a similar style to Moura, both actors offer grounded performances and believability is almost never a question. However, both lack some character development and are left with ambiguous motivations. Murphy, who is introduced first, is quite stoic—a fitting characteristic for a federal agent. And yet at times, he is too much of a brick wall, with mouth agape. Some lines may fall to viewers’ ears as apathetic when they should be emotionally charged. Additionally, Murphy’s motivation to confront the white menace in Colombia after the first episode is abrupt and leaves viewers on shaky, uninvested ground with the character who is supposed to be the “good guy.” However, these criticisms could very well fall away with time.

Pena comes into the scene suddenly as well, but brings a unique and passionate point of view to viewers. Pascal does not disappoint as a suave, confident, and determined agent, resolved at ridding Colombia of drug violence by any means.

Another enjoyable aspect of Narcos is its heavy use of Spanish. More true to the actual events, Pablo Escobar and friends never speak English. This should be expected, but the consistency is noticeable and refreshing as English in many other films becomes the de facto business exchange language. This aspect again reinforces the believable precedent set by the show.

In many ways, Narcos feels like a documentary adaptation for television. Instead of splicing newsreels, the acting and cinematography are used to tell a very real story. A criticism of many “based on a true story” works is that they often mess up the events or skew the events in favor of one side. For every A Bridge Too Far (1977), we also get several Pearl Harbors (2001). Even in recent times, other critically acclaimed biopic pictures like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) have been critiqued for their one-sidedness. Narcos brings that sentiment of realism and fairness to the eyes of viewers, but it also does so through TV (is Netflix TV though?). Through presentation of the brutal material does offer up a more fair view of the blow dealers, it does not condone their actions, nor should it in any sane viewer’s mind.

It will be interesting to see how Narcos unfolds. Maybe the future of the biopic picture lies in episodic series, which can give the subject matter more honest due diligence a standard two-hour movie. In time, these shows may be adequate representations of histories we already know, and a powerful way to glean insight into those we don’t.

Featured Image Courtesy of Gaumont International Television

September 13, 2015