There is an old parable about three blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and describing completely different animals depending on whether they are holding the trunk or the tail. Because bystanders, cops and criminals all have different perspectives on what’s happening, you’d think that a lot of crime movies would suffer from the elephant problem. However, in my experience most films pick an entry point and stick with it. Goodfellas isn’t trying to tell all sides of the story; it’s just trying to tell Henry Hill’s story.
This documentary about the ‘cocaine wars’ in Miami in the late 70s and early 80s really suffers because it lacks that focus. The first part is about two middlemen who delivered the cocaine from Columbia to Miami, but who seem to be nonviolent. At some point it switches to a completely different story about a hitman for a female drug lord who doesn’t seem to have directly known the middlemen. Complicating matters is that whatever perspective these interviewees are giving is often contradicted by the many cops whose testimony is intercut with those interviews. Further muddying the waters is a frenetic editing style that jams these disparate things on top of each other as if we won’t notice the bait and switch if it happens quick enough.
It’s a shame because these individual stories all seem to be worth telling. Every person they talk to is forthcoming and tells their stories well; they could each inhabit their own film. Furthermore, there are interesting ideas here that aren’t given any breathing room because the film is already trying to do too much. The film ends with a discussion about how the massive influx of cocaine money turned Miami from a sleepy retirement community into an international tourist destination, and how there’s a gray area between the positive effects of that growth and the negative costs of getting there. But it can’t really elaborate on those ideas because it has to wrap up all the other stories it started and never finished.
I know that there’s a recut version of this which is longer, as well as a sequel. Perhaps they fix those problems and give each story more room to breathe, but I’m skeptical that more footage would make for a more comprehensive film and not just a longer version of an already exhaustingly long film. Either way, I’m already so burned out from the overstimulation of this version that I don’t have the energy right now to find out for sure.