Whatever the American people want to say about the “War on Drugs,” there is no denying the actual lust American audiences have for watching coke-fueled fiends kowtowing to cartel kingpins on the big screen. Drug movies – from Trainspotting to Traffic – offer spectacle first and sermon later.
The Infiltrator, directed by Brad Furman, coaxes a different quality out of the traditional narc narrative: pity, and not just pity for the lives of those ruined by the drug trade, not even a kind of self-pity for the personal sacrifices that an honest agent must make in order to get to his target, but pity for the very people an agent must invariably betray, sad feeling for the bad guys he has to burn.
Through the eyes of Florida-based federal agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) the viewers get to witness a genuine feeling of guilt over the casualties of a very personal and undercover crusade in the drug wars.
Based on the real life story of Robert Mazur, an agent who came to understand through rough experience that seizing drugs was futile if one didn’t actually follow the money,
The Infiltrator takes its audience down an un-glory hole of Janus-faced junk patrol. It’s 1986, a time when a family can’t watch TV without being hammered by anti-drug ads, and the Reagan-era strategy of upping a “War on Drugs” seems to be all about arresting addicts and creating mysterious accounts.
Given the historical draw of the drama, The Infiltrator seems to go out of its way to make certain that its star power never overwhelms its subject. The actors are linked so well with their roles that a viewer may be forgiven for forgetting that are looking at several very famous people.
John Leguizamo plays sneaky sidekick Emir, a Coors-guzzling undercover agent who doesn’t want to take an alias unless it sounds sexy; and Olympia Dukakis entrances as a grandma with a gift to grift. But in a movie with drugs and familial dilemma, we have of course come for Byran Cranston.
Cranston – who has hitherto displayed his ability to two-face his way through a drug world in Breaking Bad – portrays Mazur as a man not so much torn by his career choice but absolutely reborn by each dive into the underworld. He flits smoothly between unscrupulous bankers and soused drug dons, as easily as he flirts with coke-happy bowling alley waitresses.
But the agent all but cracks when he comes upon a man he respects. In his bid to get in good with Colombian Cartel King Pablo Escobar, Mazur subjects himself to all makes of degradation. He wrestles with the sexual advances of dangerous dandy named Ospina (lasciviously portrayed by Cuban-American actor Yul Vasquez) and he shoves a waiter’s face into a chocolate cake on anniversary just to prove his rough code before a diabetic drug lord who has joined his table.
Of course Mazur, who takes the name “Bob Mussella,” is successful at convincing the members of the cartel that he is the one guy they need to help launder their money. Not only is he good at the con, but he is the inventor of the kind of deep investigation that ultimately leads him to become something he has always been wary of: a friend to a fiend.
Beautiful fake fiancé in tow, Mazur gets into the good graces of a high-ranking member of Escobar’s inner circle. Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a man with all the charm of Fantasy Island-era Ricardo Montalban comes onto the scene like he’s next in line to play the nephew of the “Most Interesting Man in The World,” only this suave suit has a wife and daughter he wants to protect above all.
Mazur and his fake fiancé hang with Alcaino and his wife, engaging in the kind of sensual diplomacy that falls just short of wife-swapping, exchanging pearls and design secrets, and most poignantly allowing secrets to slip by.
When Alcaino must go into hiding and his wife has nowhere to turn, she comes to Mazur and his-soon-to-be-bride, crying that her husband explained to her that they alone were to be trusted. The closer Mazur gets to the sting, an elaborate operation that will bring dozens of cartel criminals in the same room to join in a very special very day, the more everything stings.
The Infiltrator could have just as easily been called “The Traitor,” and no one, not even the real life Mazur – who still engages in deep cover and demands top dollar for speaking engagements--would have much to say about it.