In “The Two Escobars” brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (“Favela rising”) have taken three rather straightforward storylines—the rise and fall of a Messianic athlete, the rise and fall of a Robin Hood-like drug kingpin, and, most broadly, the rise and fall of a country—and interwined them into one of the most intensely complex documentaries ever made.
You don’t walk out of “The Two Escobars” merely saddened by the dashed hopes and dreams of Andres Escobar, the star captain for the Colombian soccer team Atlético Nacional, who was gunned down just days after accidentally scoring against his team in the 1994 World Cup. Nor do you leave simply cursing Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord billionaire unrelated by blood to Andres but a not-so-silent partner of his soccer league—and an inevitable creator of the violence that fueled not just Andres’ murder but his own, in December 1993. You leave utterly confounded by the intricate questions posed by the legacy of these two vibrant figures, both launched from humble upbringings to legendary status, both clinging to noble intentions, both adoring supporters of their country in wildly different ways.
How harshly, for instance, should we judge a criminal, however murderous he turned out to be, who was a lifelong friend and protector of the poor, whose overthrow and killing by the rival vigilante group Los Pepes is still mourned by legions of indigent Colombians? Why would a team hellbent on bringing glory to Colombia—on purifying its country’s corrupt image—remain complicit about being financed by laundered drug money (a practice known as “narco-soccer”)? And while Pablo Escobar’s pride and self-preservation clearly sealed his fate, would he have prevented Andres Escobar’s death if not for his own murder?
The Zimbalist Brothers, who shot the film for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series broadcast on the TV channel’s 30th anniversary, don’t provide any easy answers. Atletico National would never have reached such international prowess if not for the thriving drug market, and the country could never have afforded to recruit such raw talent. Furthermore, hypocritical as it was for him to make Colombia look legit through illegal practices, Pablo Escobar rarely involved his athletes in the bloodier acts of his enterprise; the violence against team members only escalated after his decline. So the film doesn’t really villainize Pablo Escobar, as it easily could have, but it never pretends that his reign wasn’t a key part of Colombia’s undoing.
The Zimbalists have compiled a series of astoundingly candid interviews with widows and other loved ones of the deceased, former Nacional teammates and even surviving henchmen from Pablo Escobar’s heyday. Beyond the already difficult task of getting Pablo’s sister and Andres’ would-be wife to speak in depth about their long-suppressed trauma, the Zimbalists also extract vivid details from their subjects about the intricate workings of narco-soccer itself. Narco-soccer is a very taboo subject in Colombia, and rarely talked about outside the criminal underground, yet the Zimbalists get known convicts—among them John Jairo Velásquez, AKA “Popeye,” Pablo’s right-hand man—to open up on camera about extortion, bribery and even killings. They have a formidable talent putting these reluctant and/or notorious figures at ease, and they’ve even gained access to private videos of Pablo Escobar at various stages of his life, previously only seen by family or the police officers that confiscated the footage.
The film also employs a thumping, percussive score to escalate the tension on-screen. In the footage of Andres’ fateful World Cup game, you can viscerally feel the players’ increasing dread as it dawns on them that they need to win not for livelihood but, literally, for survival.
Between 1994 and 1998, Colombia watched Atletico Nacional drop from 4th to 34th place internationally, and star players have gradually defected from the team to keep from further endangering their lives. As the violence began to trickle out of Colombian soccer, and in turn Colombia itself, so too did the Colombian soccer leagues tumble back into obscurity. There are essentially three deaths in “The Two Escobars,” and the final, most lingering one—the death of national hope—is somehow the most tragic.
“The Two Escobars,” which played at the Tribeca Film, Cannes and other festivals, is now playing for a limited run at Cinema Village in New York City. It will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray November 9.