'The Two Escobars'

"The Two Escobars" are related not by blood, but by a Colombian soccer team.

In Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s knockout docu, “The Two Escobars” are related not by blood, but by a Colombian soccer team: Pablo, an infamous, all-powerful drug lord, owns the team, while Andres, a dedicated, straight-arrow sportsman, serves as captain. Comparisons with the rugby dynamic of “Invictus” inevitably apply as nations’ destinies hang on a World Cup match, though Pablo Escobar is surely no Nelson Mandela. Largely composed of found footage, kinetically re-edited into a seamless historical narrative, this riveting pic has a potential draw that far surpasses the audience implied by its affiliation with ESPN, where it airs June 21.

The Two Escobars” opens with a garbled, nightmarish montage of the ill-fated World Cup match between the U.S. and Colombia on June 22, 1994, when captain Andres Escobar accidently kicked the ball into his own net, scoring a winning goal for the U.S., and leading to his assassination in Medellin two weeks later.

The filmmakers then backtrack to recount the rise and fall of their two equally newsworthy protagonists via interviews and copious media coverage, as triumphant matches intermingle with rampant violence in what soon becomes known as “narco-soccer.”

Upstanding Andres, dubbed “the Gentleman of Soccer,” offers little dramatic fodder. Like Tiger Woods before the fall, he stood as a role model and national idol, beloved by fans and teammates. Testimonials from his elegant sister and down-to-earth fiancee limn the picture of an athlete who, for the good of the team, reluctantly attended hedonistic house parties and informal matches at Pablo Escobar’s palatial estate.

Pablo, conversely, was charismatic and deadly enough to have spawned a dozen movie portraits, rising from Medellin’s slums to become Colombia’s most formidable strongman by generously rewarding loyalty and ruthlessly suppressing opposition. His right-hand man, John Jairo Vesasquez (aka “Popeye”), interviewed from jail, admits to personally killing “about” 250 people, adding, “Only a psychopath keeps count.” The poor considered Pablo a folk hero, as he built them soccer fields, housing projects and clinics promised, but never delivered, by politicians.

A lifelong love of soccer, combined with a need to launder the massive sums of money generated by drug dealings, led Pablo to buy his own team. The influx of cash in turn allowed Colombia, usually stuck in the cellar, to boast a crackerjack lineup of players, drawn mainly from the slums. But rival cartels, with millions to launder, formed competing franchises, and soon the drug wars moved to the soccer fields.

The Zimbalists, always aware of the ambiguous moral distinctions between outlaws and government in South America, fully exploit the ironies inherent in Pablo’s saga. Fearing nothing in Colombia, where his control was virtually limitless, Pablo battled to change the extradition laws — first getting himself elected to the House of Representatives and then, upon his immediate eviction from that august body, waging an all-out war against the government. He prevailed, but his victory forged “Los Pepes” (people persecuted by Pablo Escobar), an unholy alliance of Colombian armed forces, rival drug lords and the U.S. government, which finally brought him down.

Pic pulses with the same rhythmic mastery achieved in the filmmakers’ earlier “Favela Rising.” Jeff Zimbalist and Gregory O’Toole’s nonstop editing and Michael Furjanic’s driving score steamroll the wildly divergent materials into a copacetic ride.

The Two Escobars

Production

An ESPN Films presentation of an All Rise Films production. Produced by Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist. Executive producers, Keith Clinkscales, John Dahl, Joan Lynch, Connor Schell, John Skipper, Bill Simmons, John Walsh. Directed, written by Michael Zimbalist, Jeff Zimbalist, from an original concept by Nick Sprague.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Jeff Zimbalist; editors, Jeff Zimbalist, Gregory O'Toole; music, Michael Furjanic; supervising sound editor, Paul Bercovitch; sound designer, Ethan Beigel; re-recording mixers, Tony Volante, Ryan Price. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 23, 2009. Running time: 102 MIN. (Spanish, English dialogue)

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