An artificially lively documentary ties together national politics and soccer history, with a few troublesome simplifications

The Two Escobars

on October 17, 2010 by Vadim Rizov

A significant cut above the usual sports doc hagiography, The Two Escobars (produced as part of ESPN's 30 On 30 series and granted a brief pre‐DVD theatrical run) tries a little too hard to earn the adjective "kinetic" and skims over some subtleties in telling the intertwined tales of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar and soccer player Andres Escobar. In the Zimbalist brothers' convincing telling, the history of Columbian soccer was made possible by cocaine money in the first place. Colors are hyped, games are editorially jumbled for dramatic impact and context could be filled out a bit more; still, the story's compelling and the investigative guts commendable. Even those uninterested in soccer should be hypnotized; commercial prospects, should word get out, should lead to a healthy cult.

Of the two Escobars, Pablo is portrayed with more of his thorny contradictions intact. Once ranked by Forbes as the seventh richest man in the world, his many, many executions and indiscriminate bombings (both to intimidate those who wouldn't be bribed and as a way of forcing the Columbian government not to extradite him to the US) receive significant, gory archival attention. But he was also a dedicated soccer fan who built fields all over, giving space for impoverished young players to start their careers; many of them would later play for Atlético Nacional (a soccer team that doubled as a money laundering operation, as with many of Columbia's teams in the '80s), familiar with Escobar long before he brought them to his estate for parties and private games.

Andres Escobar gets a more cursory, sanctified portrayal; the man may well have been a saint incapable of wrong, and his status as a martyred symbol of Columbia's '90s mayhem is unquestionable, but his monochromatic portrayal makes for questionable drama that seems slanted. The Zimbalist brothers have terrific interview footage, but (quite possibly due to the ongoing dangers of speaking on the record) only jailed drug lords, soccer players and family members speak here; inadequate perspective is provided by former DEA agent Tom Cash, who mostly fumes about how cocaine's dangers were underestimated before the overdose of Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias (whose 1986 death is the subject of another 30 On 30). Any cursory overview of the larger problems of the Columbian government Escobar opposed is limited to mentions of their oligarchic nature, and any consideration of the War On Drugs avoided.

What's here is, nonetheless, luridly compelling (and would be more so if the Zimbalists didn't slap City Of God filters over slum footage and stupidly impose artificial film scratches over what's clearly archival video). In their telling, Columbia's best ever national team was unnerved by the loss of their goalie before their first 1994 World Cup game against Romania, threatened with death unless they removed a key player before the second game and, shaken and demoralized, couldn't focus. The key point is made, if seemingly lost in the overly cheery finale: sports fans who had their faith in the idea of a game that could transcend Columbia's national turmoil and violence had their hopes ineradicably shattered, proving that it is just a game after all.

Distributor: ESPN Films
Directors/Screenwriters: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Producers: Daniel Silver, Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist
Genre: Documentary/Sports
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 100 min
Release date: October 15 NY


Tags: Daniel Silver, Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist

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