Written by Ellen Brown Furman. Based on the book by Robert Mazur
Directed by Brad Furman
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
In light of the never-ending superhero movies flying in and out of theaters, the notion of Bryan Cranston, who famously portrayed Breaking Bad’s iconic meth distributor Walter White, being pitted against infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar in the film The Infiltrator, might have some viewers expecting a big screen battle on the scale of Heisenberg vs. Gus Fring.
Well, for those wanting such a showdown, be forewarned that The Infiltrator (which is based on actual events) is not like the Netflix series, Narcos, where Escobar is the main character. Instead, The Infiltrator follows undercover U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Cranston) as he tries to set up a meeting with the kingpin. Much like reaching the final boss in a video game, Mazur must first get past the drug baron’s henchmen.
To his credit, Cranston is able, for the most part, to make us forget his Walter White persona, albeit remnants of the character do pop up in one particular scene in a restaurant in which Mazur, who is posing as a Mob boss named Bob Musella, goes ballistic in order to not have his cover blown. Actually, the threat of getting exposed is the go-to method of the filmmakers to create tension, a method they go to often — and, perhaps, one too many times. Late in the movie, Mazur’s briefcase with concealed recording equipment is exposed during an outdoor meeting in broad daylight and only the heavily inebriated cartel lieutenant kinda, sorta notices. (And in yet another moment in which things don’t quite add up, Mazur, who under the Musella alias has already fronted like he lives in a New Jersey mansion, gets mailed a nasty threat by the cartel to his real home where he lives with his wife and kids.)
Perhaps the reason that the bad guys don’t catch on to Mazur’s true identity is because they’re too busy trying to convince anybody that will listen that they may be bad guys but they’re still honorable men in their own fucked-up way. So if you cross them, it’s gonna be really bad for you because they will cut your head and balls off, but it will be really bad for them, too, because you’ll hurt their feelings for fully trusting you after bonding over a couple of nice dinners and a trip to the strip club.
It might sound like The Infiltrator is a terrible movie. It really isn’t. It does a good job of recreating the ‘80s, the music selection is on-point, and there are some effective performances to support Cranston’s undeniable screen presence (notably, Diane Kruger as a first-time undercover agent and Juan Cely as a swarthy informant). It’s just lacking genuinely compelling moments found in documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys, which chronicles the dangerous drug exploits of the late Griselda Blanco and her death squads.
There’s also the question of what motivates Mazur to continue in a potentially deadly line of work, especially since he seems to have a stable life with his family and is offered an escape into early retirement. We can see why adrenaline junkie agent Emir Abreu (played by the reliable John Leguizamo who comes off like a Colombian Donnie Brasco) wants to keep doing his job, but why does Mazur want to risk his life?
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Deception and betrayal is essentially the main duty of an undercover agent. Because even though they are duping criminals, a lie is still a lie. This damn near philosophical dilemma and its effects is what is supposed to be the emotional payoff of the film, but it doesn’t fully resonate because the connection between characters isn’t as strong as it should be.
But in the end, all is fair in love and the War on Drugs. An agent might have to sniff coke, fuck prostitutes or get a snitch killed in order to stay alive. It’s a dirty game and there’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. There’s more blurred lines than Robin Thicke on a bender.
In a speech by Benjamin Bratt’s high ranking (and suave) cartel leader, he claims that the U.S. economy is dependent on the world drug trade. At the movie’s end, it’s noted that while Mazur’s operation made a major bust that also included exposing international banks involved in money laundering, the victory was short lived as the C.I.A. got caught up in a tangled web of secret drug trafficking and arms dealing to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua. (In The Infiltrator, the C.I.A. is seen lurking in the shadows.)
While we live in a murky world in which the government can keep the American public in the dark about things it shouldn’t be doing, it’s been clear for a long while that the War on Drugs didn’t work — well, at least not in the way that it was advertised to the people. Despite out-of-touch 'Just Say No' campaigns, kids still got high. Instead of stopping the violence, streets were flooded with guns. There’s been the mass incarceration of people of color through racist drug charges that have turned private prisons into profitable plantations. The increased militarization of police is evident anytime cops shoot dead another black or brown citizen and then respond to protests with armored vehicles and combat weapons previously only seen in war zones.
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People have long been disillusioned with politicians and their doublespeak. Watching undercover agents in The Infiltrator have to lie to cover up more lies helps us see what Tony Montana meant when he said in Scarface: “I always tell the truth, even when I lie.” The question is, can America handle the truth?