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Sicario : A Review and Reports From Down the Rabbit Hole of the Drug War

*** WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!!***

MY RATING : SEE IT IN THE THEATRE!!

Sicario, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a taut and tense drama that tells the story of FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Team Agent Kate Macer and her descent into the murky world of the international Drug War. The film stars Emily Blunt as Agent Macer, with supporting turns by Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin.

As Sicario opens, we see Blunt's Macer in full tactical gear riding with her team to raid a house. The cookie cutter house is in the Arizona suburbs, but it could be any house, in any suburban neighborhood, in any state in America. The house, like the film, looks like one thing on the surface, but the deeper you look into it, the more shocking, complicated and dangerous realities it reveals. That house, symbolic of the American dream, reveals the violence, the corruption, the peril and the cancer that is the American Drug War. Sicario teaches us that not only won't Macer leave that house the way she went in, but America won't leave the Drug War the same way it went in either.

After the raid on the house, Macer is approached to be a part of a mysterious special task force headed by Matt Garver (Josh Brolin) who wants to find those responsible for the horrors found in that suburban Arizona home. Macer rightly senses that she doesn't know the whole story of the mission or who, exactly, this unkempt, flip-flop wearing Garber guy works for, but she agrees to work with him anyway. She then follows Garber, and his partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) down into the rabbit hole of the Drug War, where friend is foe and foe is friend, sometimes all at once.

Garber and Gillick lead Macer on a journey into the heart of darkness, with pit stops in Juarez, Tuscon and a honky-tonk bar. By the end of the journey, Macer will have been nearly choked to death, shot and betrayed by friend and enemy alike. Macer learns the hard way that nothing and no one is what they seem to be in the Drug War.

Along with Emily Blunt's very solid acting work, both Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro give quality performances. Del Toro is particularly captivating as the enigmatic Gillick. Del Toro gives Gillick an internally vibrant wound that makes the character pulsate with a subtly menacing righteousness and magnetism. Brolin is terrific as the morally and ethically vacuous CIA agent who doesn't care who wins the drug war, just that there is one.

To go along with the quality acting in Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johan Johansson all do magnificent work. Villenueve deftly creates a heightened and palpable tension throughout the film that is mesmerizing. Even as the first opening credits roll, a faint yet ominously unsettling deep tone from composer Johan Johansson can be heard rumbling just beneath the surface. It sets the tone for the underlying danger that permeates the entire movie, adroitly heightened by Johannson's work. The only other film of director Villeneuve's I have seen is Prisoners which I found to be very disappointing. With Sicario, Villeneuve has made a quantum leap in his filmmaking, showing a depth and level of craft that is striking. 

While Sicario is a drama and not an action film, it's exhilarating action sequences are exquisitely directed and shot.  Master cinematographer Roger Deakins work, is, as always, glorious, and well worth the price of admission alone. From the opening house raid sequence to the later raid of a drug tunnel, Deakins cinematography is sublime. His ability to propel and add depth to the narrative all while creating a masterpiece with every frame, is unparalleled.

What I liked the most about Sicario is that it shows us the reality that the "War on Drugs" has morphed into the "Drug War". This war has nothing to do with the saving of America's soul from the scourge of drug use, instead it has to do with America selling it's soul in order to wage continual war. Like the War on Terror, the Drug War is a war with no end game. Perpetual war is good for business, if your business is the military industrial complex. And if you add the prison/law enforcement industrial complex in with the military industrial complex, you have a lot of people making a lot of money making sure the drug war continues to be waged and is never won…or never declared lost.

A brief glance at the history of America's intelligence services shows us that they have consistently used illicit drugs in order to raise money and weapons for various covert operations. Be it the CIA's opium growing and smuggling business during the Vietnam War, or their cocaine trafficking into U.S. cities from Central America in the 1980's in order to support and supply the Contras and other groups in Central America, or their operations to return opium production to Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion. The key to these CIA drug operations succeeding is that drugs must be kept illegal, so that intelligence services can prosper from their sale and keep the profits off the books and away from prying eyes of oversight committees and journalists. If legalization of all illicit drugs were to happen, the CIA would find itself in quite a bind in terms of paying for all of it's nefarious activities. (I strongly encourage you to read the book, "Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press" by Alexander Cockburn, for more on this topic)

The U.S. likes to think of itself as the good guys, always with noble intentions. That is the narrative that is sold to us and that we willingly buy and struggle to question. Yet the Drug War is glaring proof that things are not always what we want them to be, or what they seem.

In the 1980's, the CIA was running cocaine from South and Central America into the inner cities of the U.S., which, oddly enough, was when the crack cocaine epidemic started. As Nancy Reagan was telling us to "Just Say No!", her husband Ronald's administration was enabling drug trafficking into the U.S. in order to illegally raise money and arms for the Contras in Nicaragua in their fight against the Sandinistas. Remember the Iran-Contra scandal…well this is the dark shadow of that scandal that no "serious" person wants to talk about. Journalist Gary Webb wrote about it, and that didn't end well for him at all. He was publicly and professionally crucified by the "establishment media" and ended up with two bullet holes in his head for his trouble. In perfect Hegelian dialectic problem-reaction-solution fashion, the CIA was funneling drugs into the heart of the U.S. in order to destroy those inner cities with drugs, weapons and violence, all the while empowering domestic law enforcement with expanded powers and dismantling the Bill of Rights in order to keep the frightened populace "safe" and their political power intact. Then they sent that money to the Contras and right wing groups in El Salvador and Honduras, where they paid for death squads, torture and assassinations, all in the name of fighting "communism" so as to re-open Central America to American business interests. (I highly recommend Gary Webb's book "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion", along with Nick Shou's book "Kill the Messenger" which tells the tale of what happened to Gary Webb for writing about the CIA-Contra-Cocaine connection.)

Afghanistan is another perfect example of the U.S. being at cross purposes with itself in the War on Drugs. Most everyone thinks that the Taliban are a horrendous group of people, and that our war on them was righteous. But the closer you look at it, the less clear that becomes. For instance, the reason we invaded was because Bin Laden had been hiding in Afghanistan allegedly under Taliban protection. Before the invasion the Taliban asked the U.S. to show evidence of Bin Laden's guilt in regards to 9-11 and they would turn him over. For some reason, the U.S. refused, and invaded anyway. No one cared much because the Taliban were such loathsome people due to their horrific treatment of woman. 

A closer look at the situation in Afghanistan reveals some surprising things that complicate the narrative we as a country tell ourselves. For instance, during the reign of the Taliban, the opium business which had, with the help of the CIA during the Afghan-Soviet war, once been thriving in the Afghanistan, was shut down entirely. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was a no-go zone for opium growing. But then something strange happened after the U.S. invasion and occupation, the opium business not only came back, it grew to previously unseen heights. Opium production in Afghanistan is now at all time highs (pardon the pun). That is certainly a strange turn of events considering the country that invaded, the U.S., is the main force behind the War on Drugs across the globe. 

The war against Afghanistan, once thought so morally clear and simple, becomes even more complicated when you take into account the practice of "bacha bazi", which literally means, "boy play", in which powerful Afghan men keep pre-pubescent boys as sex slaves. The Taliban outlawed bacha bazi, and executed anyone who practiced it. Since the U.S. invaded, bacha bazi has come roaring back, and U.S. service members have been told by their commanders to not intervene if they come across the practice. There are even stories of young boys being raped on U.S. bases by Afghan warlords, and U.S. soldiers hearing it happen but not being allowed to stop it, and being court martialed if they do intervene. When one hears these sorts of things, the question becomes, what the hell are we doing over there? What sort of twisted moral compass are we working with in that war? (Please read this disturbing NY Times piece on Bacha bazi and the U.S. ignoring it.)

Which brings us back to another war with a twisted moral compass, the Drug War. The Drug War, by every measure, has been an absolute and utter failure. Billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been wasted, and millions of lives lost, in a war that serves no purpose but to assure it's own continuance. Heroin, once the scourge of the inner city, is now epidemic in the once thought safe suburbs of America (please read Sam Quinones book "Dreamland" for more on this topic). America isn't losing it's soul in the Drug War, it has already lost it. We imprison the poor and addicted and enrich and empower the tyrannical impulse at the heart of every police officer, district attorney and politician. We as a populace don't just allow, but demand the dismantling of the rights and liberties this country was founded on. We demand a militarized police force and their "no knock" raids in the middle of the night, illegal searches and seizures, asset forfeiture and mandatory minimums, all in the name of the "War on Drugs" and our own self proclaimed moral purity. This is no "War on Drugs", drugs aren't at war with us, we are at war with ourselves. Until we can be honest about what the Drug War really is, and the powerful people really behind it, playing both sides of it and prospering from it, people will continue to be senselessly killed and die in it's name. And America will continue to sell it's soul and spiral down deeper and deeper into more circles of hell, one more heinous than the next.

When Sicario began my first thoughts were that Emily Blunt may have been miscast as the FBI SWAT team agent. Blunt is an exceedingly beautiful, almost waif-ish actress, especially compared to the monstrous Delta Force brutes she is working alongside. It even looks as if her weapon may be too heavy for her to carry in the opening sequence of the movie. As the film went on though, I came to the realization that Emily Blunt was a superb choice to play Macer. Not only is she a terrific actress, and her work in Sicario is as good as she has ever been, but she is a wonderful representation of the vital yet fragile legal structures that once made America the land of the free. In other words, Emily Blunt's Macer is a representation of the United States Constitution, or to put it in more flowery terms, Macer is Lady Liberty. What Macer is put through in Sicario is the test our rule of law and liberties have gone through in the drug war. And as del Toro's Gillick says to Macer at the end of the film, "now is a time for wolves", and Macer/Lady Liberty is just not big or strong enough to run with the big, bad, lawless wolves, otherwise known as the dogs of war. Gillick finishes by telling her she should "move to a small town somewhere, where the rule of law still exists", but as that quaint suburban Arizona house that ends up being a house of horrors proves, there is no escaping the dogs of war once they are unleashed, even in small town America.

In the first part of Sicario, there is a hauntingly effective sequence where the camera lingers in a close up on the face of a dead person in a see-through plastic bag. We can't make out whether the person is a man or woman, or how they were killed, only that they are dead and are now an anonymous statistic in the Drug War. A few moments later in the film, Macer washes the blood and mire from the Arizona house raid off in her shower, then stands post-shower in front of a steamed up mirror where her face is obscured by the condensation. It is ominously reminiscent of the anonymous Drug War victim we saw only a few shots before and foreshadows what is to come for Macer, Lady Liberty, and the rest of us, at the end of her, and our, Drug War journey.

Do yourself a favor and go see Sicario in the theatre, it is well worth your time and hard-earned money. It is not only a truly terrific film, but it will also give you a much needed glimpse into the reality just below the surface of the Drug War that our nation continues to wage. You may not like what you see in Sicario, being honest with ourselves is seldom easy. But just remember, honesty is the first step on the long journey toward sobriety, and out of our heart of darkness.

©2015

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