This review originally ran as part of our coverage of The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.
In 1998, Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein noticed a bottle in Mark McGwire’s locker. It was filled with androstenedione, an over-the-counter muscle enhancer that boosted the body’s production of testosterone. In short, andro is a steroid, banned at that time by pro football, the NCAA, and the Olympics, though not Major League Baseball. McGwire was in the midst of a season in which he would hit more home runs than any other player in history and the interest in his chase was fueling a resurgence in the game. When Wilstein wrote about McGwire and andro, the press didn’t rush to investigate McGwire’s drug use; they chastised Wilstein for making it public. In other words, what McGwire was doing on the field was so good for baseball that nobody wanted to know what McGwire was doing off of it to make it possible. Give the public big enough results, they’ll turn a blind eye to everything else.
For further proof, consider the story portrayed in the devastating documentary “The Two Escobars” from directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist. Colombians were so excited to field their first truly great soccer team, led by captain Andrés Escobar, that they didn’t care that the team was backed by brutal drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Though Pablo’s backing fueled Colombia’s meteoric rise to the top of the class of international soccer, it also sparked the team’s precipitous and fatal decline.
It all came down to money. Just as small market baseball teams lose their best players to teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox who can afford to sign expensive free agents, Colombia had never been able to afford the salaries necessary to keep their best players from leaving for more lucrative work in Europe. Pablo Escobar changed that by using his near limitless resources to fund an all-star team. His motivation was three-fold: he was a genuine soccer fan; his generosity to his players and their community helped buy him enough good publicity to keep his critics and the government at bay, and, most importantly, soccer provided a very convenient way to launder money by falsifying attendance records or player salaries. Soon other Colombian dealers got into the act, sparking a period that one talking head in the film calls the era of “narco-soccer.”
“The Two Escobars” originally premiered as part of ESPN’s ongoing documentary series “30 for 30,” which celebrates the network’s 30 years on the air with a slate of 30 documentaries. Though each film covers a different topic, some themes popped up repeatedly throughout the series; many, for instance, focus on the symbiotic relationship between a sports team and its community. “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” by Barry Levinson examined how Baltimore struggled to maintain its identity after the football team it had invested so much of itself in before the Colts abandoned them for Indianapolis; “Kings Ransom” explored how Wayne Gretzky’s departure for the Los Angeles Kings affected Edmonton, who lived and died by Gretzky’s former team, the Oilers. The Zimbalists paint a similarly sad portrait of a very troubled country. Sick of its association with the drug trade, Colombians desperately hoped the team they sent to the 1994 World Cup, populated by many of Pablo Escobar’s players (including Andrés), could help to rehabilitate their national image. Instead, the team’s poor play and the violent reaction it set off back in Colombia that included kidnappings, death threats, and eventually murder, only wound up reinforcing it.
The Zimbalists cut back and forth between the lives of Pablo and Andrés, a technique that yields more coincidences than comparisons. Other than one very costly mistake in Colombia’s final World Cup match in 1994, Andrés does not play a significant role in any of the national team’s games, and as the directors focus more and more on Pablo Escobar and his increasingly absurd battles with the law, the film’s balance begins to tip more and more heavily in his favor. Linked through soccer and a shared last name, the two were otherwise very different individuals. The churchgoing Andrés was known as “The Gentleman of the Field,” and used his status as a soccer star to try to curb violence in Colombia. The remorseless Pablo, referred to by the former president of Colombia as “the bin Laden of those times” bought Colombians’ love by paying for health clinics and houses for the homeless while ordering the assassinations of anyone who dared to speak out against him.
But even if the connections between the two men aren’t as strong as the movie would like, there’s no denying that their fates are intertwined, or that their stories serve as an effective clothesline upon which the filmmakers hang a chilling cautionary tale about what can happen when success becomes a drug. As with any addiction, once you’re hooked, the only thing that matters is maintaining the high at any cost.
“The Two Escobars” opens Friday in New York City. For a full list of upcoming play dates, go to the film’s official site.