Cocaine Cowboys, a documentary about cocaine’s Category 5 hit on Southern Florida a few decades ago, offers flash, cat-and-mouse suspense, and the vicarious thrill of watching shlubs score big money with seemingly little effort—much like its obvious fictional counterpart, Miami Vice. The TV series. But with a nearly two-hour running time that includes its share of blowhards, repetition, and cheesy attempts to heighten drama, Cocaine Cowboys also brings to mind a more unfortunate comparison: Miami Vice. The movie.
Taking his documentary from a time when Miami was a “very, very quiet, pleasant place to live” to its present state as a cosmopolitan party town, director Billy Corben interviews the crooks, the cops, and the natives who witnessed the explosion of violence and wealth that accompanied the heyday of the cocaine trade in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Miami—which is described here by defense attorney Samuel I. Burstyn as an area “where law and order was never championed”—was a ripe portal for Colombians to move their increasingly clamored-for product northward: Its borders were unpatrolled, and DEA officials admit that the government back then paid as much attention to the cocaine industry as it later did to pre-Katrina warnings of levee weakness in New Orleans.
“It was wide open,” Jon Roberts and Mickey Mundy, two of the film’s main commentators, agree. Roberts, a New York nightclub owner who moved to Florida in 1970 after his business partner was killed, began distributing cocaine not long after his arrival. But when his Cuban supplier could no longer keep up with Roberts’ growing clientele, he partnered with Mundy, a local pilot he met through a girlfriend. They didn’t care for each other—Mundy says Roberts’ black Mercedes “had drug dealer written all over it”—but any differences were forgotten when they began working directly for big-time Colombians, specifically Pablo Escobar and the rest of the Medellín Cartel. Soon the pair had more money than they knew what to do with, burying some while using more to buy land and spread out operations, to better evade what little law enforcement might have been on to them. As Mundy puts it, “It was too easy.”
So easy that Miami was quickly defined by blow and the consequences of its trafficking. Not all of which were bad. Yes, violence escalated to the point where the media required “four or five murders” before it considered a particular crime newsworthy. Fidel Castro had “flushed the toilets of Cuba into the United States,” in his words, increasing the area’s rampant lawlessness to such a degree that when its police force decided to beef up its enrollment, it had to keep relaxing its drug-use policy until it pretty much became, “If you’re not high now, you’re in.” (Surprise: That year’s class didn’t quite work out.) Meanwhile, however, the economy flourished; Miami saw an unprecedented growth of banks and businesses.
Cocaine Cowboys delves deeply into the muck, eventually switching focus from Roberts and Mundy to Jorge “Rivi” Avala, a hit man still in custody, and his train-wreck-fascinating boss, Griselda Blanco, the relentlessly bloodthirsty ringleader of the Medellíns known as “The Godmother.” Corben interviews Avala, as he does Roberts and Mundy, extensively. Blanco, however, is represented only by a rotation of images that slowly zoom in and out—or are positioned on different backgrounds as if she were a stock graduate in a Sears portrait catalog. Corben, a second-time documentarian, uses this approach with several of his subjects, and the cut-outs are always tacky. (Often they’re accompanied by floating bags of coke.) And although the film’s main participants and the history they share are often transfixing—Roberts is motormouthed and weaselly; Mundy looks and speaks like Donald Trump, albeit with a strawberry blond ponytail down his back; and Avala is boyishly handsome and engaging—Corben lets their testimonies stretch into one-man pissing contests about how much, how many, how often. These are the men you regret striking up a conversation with at a bar. Combine this braggart overload with editing that won’t let you forget this is a film about yayo, and it’s a relief when Corben allows a comedown.
None too subtle, either, is the use of composer Jan Hammer, who contributes what boils down to his Miami Vice theme with a country-music tweak. But such flagrancy is perhaps fitting. After the endless tales of bloodletting, the gory news footage, and the disclosure of the subjects’ fates, we’re reminded of the city’s present-day glory with this opinion from defense lawyer Burstyn: “The drug trade saved Miami in a lot of ways.”
Visuals and poetics are championed over substance in Iraq in Fragments, director James Longley’s follow-up to his 2002 doc, Gaza Strip. Shot in crisp digital video from February 2003 until April 2005, the movie stitches perspectives from the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, each representing a part of a fractured nation. “But Iraq is a country,” a Kurdish boy points out in voice-over. “And how can you cut a country into pieces? With a saw?”
OK, so maybe not all of it is poetic. The answer Longley’s using the kid’s apparent naiveté to get to, of course, is war. Instead of political analysis, however, the director offers slice-of-life storytelling: Part I is from the perspective of 11-year-old Mohammed, who works as a mechanic in Baghdad and occasionally goes to school. Part II is titled “Sadr’s South,” intimate footage of a violent, anti-American Shiite organization. Part III returns to a child’s viewpoint, documenting the friendship of two boys and their fathers in a northern farming community, its fields blanketed by the black smoke of nearby brick ovens.
The effect of the American occupation is spoken of in an offhand manner in each of these sections. While playing games outside the shop, for example, Mohammed’s boss and his friends talk of how the situation is all about oil and gripe over the lack of aid that was supposedly sent them. One Shiite, while Sadr’s faction was organizing elections it hoped would trump those organized by the United States, claims that Americans were “shaking our hands and stabbing us in the back.” Others look to these militants, who are shown attacking merchants selling alcohol, and proclaim that our country removed one Saddam only to have him replaced with 100 more.
None of it, unfortunately, is very compelling. Iraq in Fragments is meatiest, politically speaking, in its center, yet Longley merely points and shoots instead of providing much context about Sadr’s organization and power. And the documentary’s bookends are eye-rolling: The friends in the third act roll around in cornfields and hold hands as they walk to school, proclaiming that they’ll remain friends even after they’re grown. Visually, the director’s flair is impressive, with stark, monochromatic images of a country in ruins, close-ups of his subjects’ eyes, and touches such as the rotor of a helicopter morphing into the blades of a ceiling fan. But Longley’s clear intention of using children’s faces to better tug at our heartstrings would be more admirable if it didn’t feel as shamelessly staged. How many 11-year-olds, for instance, will reminisce in a quavering voice that his country was “beautiful…the bridges, the river, there were fish. Now there’s nothing.” Oh, here it is: On the Web site for Iraq in Fragments, Longley says that during production he was “gradually working through [Mohammed’s] shyness,” spending a year working on his narration until the boy was speaking in “clear, complete”—and gosh-darn purty—sentences. The documentarian should know that stylization works better on images than subjects.CP