Monday, October 11, 2010

ESPN in Theaters: The Two Escobars

In the wake of the scandals that rocked the game of baseball, it is impossible to pretend the illicit drug trade never intersects the world of sports. After all, if you believe Jose Canseco’s memoir, his blood must have serious street value. However, the extent to which drugs have corrupted American athletics pales in comparison to recent Colombian sporting history. In chronicling the violent destinies of two very different Colombians who happened to have the same surnames, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist expose the corrupting influence of drug money on the Columbian national football (soccer) team in their documentary The Two Escobars (trailer here), part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film series, which opens in New York this Friday after premiering at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and airing on the commissioning network this June.

Though unrelated, Andrés and Pablo Escobar both were born in Medellín, the city which the latter man would make infamous as the seat of his cocaine empire. By contrast, Andrés Escobar gained notoriety for his brilliant defense and genuine sportsmanship on the football field. However, he could not avoid the world other the other Escobar, who secretly funded the national team with his blood money.

While Pablo basically got what was coming to him, Andrés Escobar’s death was senselessly tragic. Unfortunately, he was the player who inadvertently scored the own goal during the Colombian team’s ill-fated 1994 World Cup tournament. Soon thereafter, he was gunned down outside a Medellín nightclub by underworld figures probably associated with a faction aligned against Escobar’s cartel (though it may not necessarily have been direct motivated by his World Cup mistake).

Although the scrappy American team was the beneficiary of Escobar’s mistake, watching his own goal replayed repeatedly in Escobars will make audiences cringe several times over. Yet, the film is more a tribute to the footballer Escobar rather than a true crime examination of the drug lord’s rise and fall. Indeed, the film is strongest when depicting the athlete’s life and legacy. Whereas, the Pablo Escobar material is somewhat undercut by thin, unconvincing conspiracy musings that detract from the overall film. In fact, its biases against the Colombian government seem rather off-base, considering what they sacrificed to join the international battle against narco-terrorism, not the least being a competitive national football team. Still, when Escobars sticks to straight reportage it is informative and its interviews with Andrés Escobar’s still grieving but strikingly dignified family are frankly quite moving.

Andrés Escobar set a graceful civic-minded example for Colombia, both on the field and in the difficult days leading up to his murder (the circumstances of which remain somewhat murky). Fortunately, his country has come a long way since that fateful night (which foreign policy makers should be mindful of). Escobars is worth seeing to get a sense of Andrés as an athlete and as a national symbol of something greater. Imperfect but not without merit, it opens theatrically this Friday (10/15) in New York at the Cinema Village.