There's not much debate over ESPN's 30 for 30 series so far. It's been fantastic. So good, they should make it into an ongoing series that continues long past the anniversary it's supposed to celebrate.
But even by 30 for 30's standards, the Zimbalist brothers upped the ante with The Two Escobars.
All the other films in the series have been successful, no question. But with most of them, victory happened the moment production got underway. I mean, with most of these subjects, it's hard to fail. University of Miami football in the ‘80s, the Allen Iverson trial in Hampton, Va., the Len Bias saga, Knicks-Pacers in the ‘90s, the L.A. Raiders and N.W.A.—it's impossible for these movies to NOT be entertaining, right? They haven't all fulfilled their potential, but for the most part, we're getting stories that should have been told a long time ago, and just for telling them, ESPN and the filmmakers deserve a standing ovation.
30 for 30 is like Beyond the Glory or Sports Century, but with better production value. Even when it fails to completely deliver, we're still watching, simply because there's nothing like it on the market.
That said, when a film like The Two Escobars comes along, we need to have a whole separate discussion. It's the story of Andres Escobar, a Colombian soccer star gunned down after scoring an "own goal" in the 1994 World Cup. But it's also the story of Colombian society, soccer, and drug trafficking the likes of which hadn't been seen before, and hasn't been seen since.
Like its 30 for 30 counterparts, Escobars wins straight off—as Spencer Hall said yesterday, "I will watch any movie about cocaine in the 1980s." A movie about Pablo Escobar, tied to sports, simply cannot fail. But it was so much better than that.
There were so many places where the film could have gotten lost in cliché, but it never happened. Seriously. So many were a few gigantic tropes that could have gotten the broad-strokes treatment from the filmmakers, and it would have understandable. To wit:
- Pablo Escobar. One of the most imposing characters history has ever seen. The potential is there for any filmmaker to paint him as an out-of-control, out-of-his-mind cartoon villain. Likewise, you could draw a much softer picture, with Pablo at the center of a crumbling Colombian society, using any means necessary to better those around him. With either rendering, you could take comfort in your loyalty to the subject.
- Colombia in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nobody would bat an eyelash watching Colombia portrayed as pure, unadulterated anarchy. The country had the highest murder rate in the entire world during the years captured by the film, just about every member of the government was corrupt, and to the rest of the world, Colombia had become a cautionary tale. "What would happen if your country was run by criminals?" Colombia was the answer. It would have been easy for any filmmaker to conclude the same in hindsight.
- Sport as unifier. Especially given the unrest percolating throughout Colombian society in those days, pointing to soccer as the great panacea would have made sense. At one point in the film, someone remarks, "Bankers, doctors, middle class, lower class... In that stadium, everyone was the same." This is the role of sport that we romanticize. The ultimate equalizer. Should The Escobars have exaggerated this aspect of the story, to say the least, it wouldn't be the first movie to take this tact.
- Andres Escobar. By all accounts, the film's tragic hero could have taken up the entire two hours. Not because he was particularly interesting, but because he's someone that people enjoy hearing about-the ideal athlete. The All-American boy, if he'd been born in the States. Someone that loved the game, always remained humble, and made his family and country proud. Not unlike Len Bias, his loss was so profound, you could have filled the movie with 120 minutes of tributes, and we'd still come away feeling fulfilled.
The film could have used any one of those topics as a prism to understand the rest of the context surrounding Escobar's murder, and it still would have been very good. Just like all the other 30 for 30 docs. What made the film great—like, artistically astounding, emotionally affecting, and something we'll want to rewatch, buy on DVD, etc—was its ability to play off each of the above clichés in creating a reality that was a thousand times more complicated.
Colombian soccer, for instance, didn't become a unifier until drug money infused the sport with new life. Pablo Escobar was the insatiable villain that once had soccer referee murdered, but at the same time, the inflexible moralist who never would have allowed the underworld to kill Andres Escobar for his World Cup mistake.
Colombian society became a farce because of Pablo's drug ring, yes. But it descended into chaos when he died. Andres Escobar's death was an epic tragedy, yes, but an honest look at the situation leaves his story obscured by the sprawling contradictions that emerge when you examine its roots.
"Colombia had lost control of her streets," says Escobar's former national team coach, Francisco Maturana. "And any society built on a defective foundation is destined to collapse."
Drugs left Colombia replete with the funding required to compete on a world stage in soccer, but when Pablo Escobar met his inevitable end, a society emerged that was too unstable to sustain itself. As his coach Maturana explains in the film's most poignant moment, "Our society believes that soccer killed Andres. No. Andres was a soccer player killed by society."
Not killed by drugs. By society. A culture that fell into an inevitable trap, where drugs brought real, positive changes, and good and evil became blurred. Pablo Escobar used to ask government officials, "Silver or lead?" As in, accept our bribes, or face our bullets. But Colombians never really had a choice. They got both.
For years and years, Pablo was good and evil personified. Then, when his reign expired, the rest of Colombians were left to reconcile his morality with their own ends. A dictatorship became a democracy full of dictators. Does that make Pablo the cause, or the only one that could have prevented it? It's the sort of cruel, impossible question that most of us are too ignorant to even ask.
How do you take a film about one of the most profound, unmitigated tragedies in sports history, and make it about morality's inevitable gray area, and the implications that can have on a culture? It takes breathtaking audacity to try, but Jeff and Michael Zimbalist pulled it off.
It's different than anything ESPN has done with 30 for 30, and better most any documentary you'll find anywhere. So, if you haven't seen it, make the time. Buy the DVD, find it online, whatever. It's all worth it. But don't expect any easy answers.