Narcos, Netflix, and Notoriety

Narcos has always had a difficult needle to thread. In dedicating so much screen time to Pablo Escobar and the likes, Netflix has been accused of glorifying some of the world’s most notorious terrorists. The writers of Narcos have always been sensitive to this slight and made a concerted effort to include the bad and the ugly when it came to Escobar. His bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and the DAS building are both given prominent attention in the series, and his penchant for violence completely undercuts his occasional acts of charity. 

If I had to give Narcos: Columbia a grade, I would probably give it a B+. Escobar was definitely an interesting aspect of the show, but he was never the sole reason to watch the show. I personally considered the conflict between the CIA and the DEA to be one of the most compelling aspects of the show and had that storyline been fleshed out a bit better, Narcos: Columbia could have earned a place in the pantheon of great TV shows.

While Narcos: Columbia almost makes the cut, Narcos: Mexico falls well short of the mark. The first season of Narcos: Mexico was decent, but the second season was a muddled mess. On paper, there is a lot to like about Narcos: Mexico. It has a great cast–Michael Pena and Diego Luna are the main draws for Season One–and the subject matter is undeniably interesting. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much to latch on to with the show. The voice-over narration is frustratingly dry, not to mention overdone, and the characters aren’t all that compelling. With the exception of Kiki, we aren’t given much reason to root for the characters. If anything, we are given reasons to not like them.

Walt Breslin is a good example of this. He comes into the show relatively late, and I think the show creators assumed viewers would find him sympathetic because he purports to be on the side of law and order. He does enter the story with some degree of goodwill because of his connection to Kiki, but it’s immediately squandered on a brutal torture sequence. For reasons I can’t understand, the show creators assumed we would find Breslin’s character more interesting once we watched him lop fingers off a restrained prisoner. In all fairness, the man is a member of Mexico’s DFS–the functional equivalent of the SAVAK if we are to believe the show–but that doesn’t make the sequence any easier to watch. The victim ends up succumbing to his injuries, but not before volunteering the information Breslin needs.

I always find it odd when law and order shows endorse torture as an interrogation technique, and Narcos: Mexico has enough torture to make Jack Bauer blush. Again and again, the bad guys spill the beans because of the miraculous effects of torture, though the good guys never admit anything under duress of course. Somebody who watches Narcos: Mexico could be forgiven for thinking the problem with the criminal justice system is there too much emphasis on getting warrants and too much emphasis on respecting due process.

Torture issues aside, Narcos: Mexico doesn’t seem much interested in the established facts. For the most part, the show is more interested in creating a story inspired by history more than it is based on history. This isn’t a deal breaker per se, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad includes plenty of storylines that are extremely out of place for the era and it’s still a good read, but it does create some interesting production issues for Narcos: Mexico. During a flashback sequence, Selinas accidentally kills a maid during a historical reenactment gone wrong. Rather than concerning himself with the well-being of his former playmate, the youthful Selinas frets his family will be upset about the bloodstains on their very expensive rug. The depiction is anything but flattering of Mexico’s future president, and I have my doubts Selinas was involved in any such incident. I have no doubts, however, that Salinas was involved in the efforts to rig the 1988 vote. PRI officials have already admitted as much, President Madrid for example, and it’s only logical to assume that Salinas was involved in the vote-rigging efforts that culminated in him being elected. Narcos: Mexico isn’t willing to suggest as much, however, and bleeps out his name in reference to the 1988 election. The attempt at censorship is as baffling as it is illogical. After all, it’s pretty easy to Google who won the 1988 election. Moreover, Narcos: Mexico suggests he was involved in all kinds of disreputable skullduggery so it seems odd for the show to pull its punches when it comes to the skullduggery we know he was involved in. 

Narcos: Mexico could have been a very interesting show. It could have explored Shakespear’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely or Machiavelli’s dictum that the ends justify the means. Instead, we ended up with a show that revels in violence and stints on interesting characters.

Book Review: The Dust and the Dark Places

*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review*

Westerns have long enjoyed a hallowed place in historical fiction and they are enjoying a resurgence in literary circles in recent years. I picked up The Dust and the Dark Places knowing very little about the setting or the author, but I only needed to read a few pages to know the author had put a great deal of research and thought into the book.

Set in the late 1800s, the story takes place in a time when lawlessness still pervaded the Mountain West and makes use of generous flashbacks to provide the backstory for the protagonist, Benjamin of Hope Springs. He spends most of his early childhood fantasizing about life outside his small town and spends his down-time reading dime novels, when he isn’t getting into trouble with his friends of course. His step-mother and his father are both alcoholic and abusive so Benjamin’s desire to escape is both understandable and natural.

As it turns out, his father is bitten with the same bug and stirs up a great deal of trouble in the next town over when he goes on a shameful bender. Unfortunately for Benjamin, trouble follows his father back home and a group of outlaws decide to make an example out of him. Benjamin and his brother are soon dragged into the mix, and the ensuing violence alters the course of Benjamin’s life. In a matter of minutes, he loses the one person he always looked up to, and he is forced to abandon almost everything he knows.

Owing to his age, the outlaws decide to spare him, but the small mercy counts for little with Benjamin. He dedicates himself to seeking revenge and spends years hunting down the outlaws who destroyed his childhood. In the interests of not giving away too much of the story, I won’t get into much more of the plot but I think what I like most about the story isn’t the plot so much as the author’s dedication to craft. The prose is both fluid and engaging, and the research is top-notch.

Whether Gracey is describing the specific mechanisms of a rifle or the arid setting, it’s abundantly clear The Dust and the Dark Places is the product of impressive scholarship. When I read up on the author, I wasn’t surprised to learn he had a background in law enforcement but I was very surprised to learn he lives in the UK. If anything, it makes me respect his research all the more. Both the language and the details feel authentic to the time and place, and I think congratulations are very much in order. The Dust and the Dark Places is not for everyone–a scene involving a whipped horse and a restrained prisoner is particularly graphic–but readers who enjoy Westerns will find much to enjoy in this story. It is not a stand-alone novel by any stretch of the imagination but considering the quality of the writing, I imagine most readers will be quite willing to pick up the next installment. 

The Queen’s Vow: Book Review

In researching the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I have had to learn a great deal about cultural norms and the historical traditions of Renaissance Spain. I picked up The Queen’s Vow because I wanted to brush up on my knowledge of the Reconquista and figured it would be interesting to read a novel on Queen Isabella’s life.

As far as I know, Isabella has not received much attention in historical fiction. To be fair, I read primarily in English, but I also would not be all that surprised if she does not receive much attention in non-English historical fiction. After all, she and her husband are both very polarizing figures on account of the Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion Edict. Nonetheless, there is no rule that historical novels ust be told from the perspective of individuals who made decisions that would be considered just in a modern day context and Gorton does a great job of recreating the historical milieu that produced Isabella of Castille.

At the start of the story, she is a young impressionable girl who has only a vague sense of her status. Her heritage accords her a great deal of rank, but it also places her in great danger. With the threat of abduction and assassination hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles she is forced to seek protection from any who are willing to aid her cause. In some cases, this means accepting condescending manipulative counselors into her inner circle and even informs her marital decisions.

Determined to decide her own fate, Isabella takes the bold step of marrying Ferdinand of Aragon. In doing so, she gives herself the chance to rule in her own right but the decision puts her in direct conflict with the sovereign of a powerful realm. The conflict soon escalates into open warfare and Isabella and Ferdinand raise an army to defend their interests. 

Ferdinand and Isabella eventually secure victory over their political foes, but at great personal cost. Both, however, are possessed by a powerful religious zeal and wish to have a country united under one crown and One God. To achieve this goal, they will launch military attacks against former allies, approve a brutal inquisition against converts, and eventually expel all practicing Jews from the country.

These events unfold over the course of numerous decades and Gorton succeeds masterfully in placing the reader in Isabella’s head. To the extent that I have any issue with his narrative decisions, it’s Gorton’s decision to saddle Isablella with a great deal of remorse and guilt. Of course, we can only speculate as to Isabella’s inner thoughts and it’s very possible she did struggle with guilt regarding her role in the Expulsion Edict and the Spanish Inquisition. Then again, she might not have and her actions don’t give much indication that she suffered from pangs of conscience. I personally think it would have been more interesting had Gorton given us a character who was a zealot in her thoughts, rather than just her actions, but one can’t prove a negative and I found the novel very engaging regardless.  

There’s a great deal to like about the story in terms of plotting and turns of phrase but if I had to pick one thing I like about the story most, it would be Gorton’s restraint as an author. He strongly implies, for example, that an important character is wasting away from an STI, but never explicitly states anything to that effect and trusts that readers will be able to put the clues together. Not every author places such faith in readers, and these “bread crumbs” help enhance the narrative in numerous respects.

I have not read that much of Gorton’s work, but I enjoyed Queen’s Vow immensely and highly recommend it to readers interested in the Reconquista, women’s history, or the unification of Renaissance Spain. 

The Assassination of Gianni Versace and the Perils of Accuracy

FX has been on a good streak with shows. The People v OJ Simpson was a great show and I hear only good things about Snowpiercer. Because I liked The People v OJ Simpson, I decided to check out the second installment in the American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Compared to The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is slow-going but it gets to be pretty good by the end. I don’t think it ever surpasses the People v OJ Simpson, but it’s definitely compelling television.

Like The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace takes place in the early 90s ad shines a spotlight on how the media covers important social events of the day. For the most part, the spotlight is not flattering, but that’s par for course in some respects. After all, everybody loves to criticize the media. Some more than others–cough cough, Donald Trump–but media critics can be found in almost every industry.

It goes without saying that free and independent media plays an extremely important role in a democratic society, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace avoids any over-the-top anti-media tirades. Instead, the show takes a more nuanced approach and explores issues related to media ethics.

Some organizations completely eschew ethics and release everything they get a hold of, Wikileaks being the most notorious example, but most major media outlets adhere to some set of ethics. Ultimately, however, there is no governing body that polices media outlets when it comes to editorial decisions and every individual outlet must self-police. I think almost anybody who watches The Assassination of Gianni Versace will come away with the impression that self-policing often fails. 

There may no better example of this than Episode 3, A Random Killing. Gianni’s killer came very close to being captured by the police after he killed Lee Miglin. As the show tells it, Gianni’s killer manages to get away, however, because a local radio outlet breaks the story that the police are tracking him by means of a car telephone. He immediately proceeds to disable that car phone and then hijacks a car from a random civilian who he murders execution-style. Much to my surprise, these events weren’t just made up for the show. Granted, we can’t know for sure that Gianni’s killer actually heard the radio announcement, but it is fact that a local outlet broke the story of the live tracking and that Gianni’s killer went on to commit two more grisly killings because he managed to evade capture. 

From an accuracy standpoint, it’s hard to fault the radio outlet. After all, the police really were tracking Gianni’s killer with the car phone and did have plans to arrest him. From a moral standpoint, however, I think the radio outlet was very much in the wrong. The outlet succeeded in giving listeners the inside scoop, but they failed to consider whether the story deserved widespread dissemination. As a result, a serial killer was able to escape justice and went on to kill at least two more people. A terrible tragedy could have been avoided if the outlet had taken greater heed of the perils of accuracy, and I am glad the show creators included this plot detail as it does a great deal to enrich the show’s story. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the show blunders into the same trap as the radio outlet when it comes to issues of accuracy.

Just to be clear, there is plenty about The Assassination of Gianni Versace that is disputed or inaccurate. However, it does get one very important fact right: the identity of Gianni’s killer. This matters a great deal because Gianni’s killer seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire for fame. Simply put, he wanted his name to be well-known and he considered murder an expedient way to achieve notoriety. By choosing to use the actual name of Gianni’s killer, the show gives him exactly what he wanted.

To be fair, Gianni’s killer is dead so it’s not like he’s rejoicing about his increased fame. Nonetheless, the decision of the show makers to use his actual name is not without consequence. If many viewers are like me, they knew next to nothing of Gianni’s killer before watching the show but now know about some of the most intimate aspects of his life. The show never glorifies Gianni’s killer and his victims do get significant screen time–with the exception of William Reese, we get a decent amount of backstory for all of his victims–but I do think the show could have benefitted by better considering some of the perils of accuracy. All in all, I did enjoy the show and I think there is a great deal about the show that is worth commending. Despite certain misgivings with the show, I recommend it to anyone interested in social history or media ethics.

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The Siege of Jadotville and the Liberty Offered by Historical Fiction

A few years ago, I came across a movie on Netflix called the Siege of Jadotville. I had never heard of Jadotville but I figured I would give it a watch since I like historical fiction. I’m glad I did as it ended up being a pretty entertaining movie and fairly informative also. Like many historical fiction works, the movie takes place in the mid 20th century. However, unlike most historical fiction works, the movie has little to do with WWII and, perhaps even more unusual, takes place in Central Africa.

The movie begins with Lumumba’s assassination, a scene that could have benefitted from some better editing, and then makes a hard pivot to a much calmer setting to give audiences some background information on the conflict. It quickly becomes clear the crisis in the Congo has garnered worldwide attention and the international community is determined to contain the violence. Containing the violence, however, is easier said than done as the Congo has become a proxy battleground in the Cold War. Terrified of what might happen if the shadowboxing of the Soviet Union and the United States escalates into a global conflagration, the UN makes the fateful decision to step in. 

At this point in history, the UN was about the same age as a pouty teenager, it had existed for a mere 16 years by the time Congolese civil war broke out, and had little in the way of real power. Nonetheless, advocates are hopeful the UN can help curb the violence and Ireland agrees to send a small contingent of peacekeepers to the DRC. It soon becomes clear, however, these peacekeepers have extremely little power to stop the wanton bloodshed that is engulfing the DRC and must content themselves with defending an isolated military compound in the countryside. Commander Quinlan thinks it unlikely his troops will see serious action in the DRC but errs on the side of caution and orders his men to undertake defensive preparations.

As it turns out, his caution proves prescient. International forces have attacked a rebel-held radio station over a hundred miles away, killing numerous in the process, and the powers that be are looking to retaliate. What better way than to attack the Jadotville compound, a military outpost defended only be peacekeepers armed with light weapons and little combat experience? What should be a romp, however, is complicated by Quinlan’s adept understanding of defensive warfare and the offensive forces suffer some humiliating setbacks in their attempt to siege Jadotville. The battle scenes are pretty gripping–according to the Telegraph, the actors underwent serious combat training to help make the battle sequences more believable–but the most powerful scene in the movie takes place far away from the battlefield.

Dag Hammarskjöld is not a name known to many, even IR students could be forgiven for not knowing him, but this long-ago Secretary-General was determined to make the UN a serious player on the world stage. So determined was he to do this that he put his own life on the line to increase the power and prestige of the UN. During the height of the Congo Crisis, Dag Hammarskjöld took the bold step of traveling to the DRC to help restore peace. Unfortunately, his decision proved to be a fatal mistake, and his plane crashed outside of Ndola.

As someone who has long been interested in the history of the UN, I knew about Dag’s Hammarskjöld’s plane crash before I watched The Siege of Jadotville. Nonetheless, I always figured it was some kind of tragic accident because non-fiction accounts never suggested any type of foul play. The Siege of Jadotville, however, takes a different tack and suggests that Congolese rebels shot down the plane. To some, this may come off as irresponsible. After all, when the movie came out, there was little hard evidence to prove that Dag Hammarskjöld was deliberately shot down, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a great many in Dag Hammarskjöld’s inner circle suspected it.

In any case, I personally don’t think historical fiction needs to only stick to what we know for certain. After all, there is precious little we can know for certain in history–we know that Caesar traveled to Egypt to take Pompeii into custody but we can’t know if his hands shook when he learned Pompeii had been killed or if tears came to his eyes–and good historical fiction, in my opinion, should relate more than what we know for certain. It should also relate what’s plausible, so long as it doesn’t conflict with what we know for certain, and I think the airplane scene does a great job of making audiences think about the circumstances regarding Dag Hammarskjöld’s death. Perhaps because of the renewed interest in the Congolese civil war, Dag Hammarskjöld has attracted more attention of late and investigators recently revealed they had discovered credible proof that Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane was deliberately shot down. If this is not a vindication of the airplane scene of The Siege of Jadotville, it is hard to know is.

Nonetheless, I completely understand that some people may find the movie interesting for reasons other than a two minute scene. Based upon what I have read about the Siege of Jadotville, something I can safely say I would have never looked into were it not for the movie, I think the movie could have done a better job of communicating Quinlan’s prowess as a military commander, but I think the movie deserves high marks all the same. I recommend it to anyone interested in UN history, Congolese history, or anyone interested in a straightforward battle flick. 

Pocahontas, Whitewashing, and Playing the Long Game

I have not seen the movie Pocahontas since I was a small kid. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much of the movie. I remember that the English looked very Spanish in the movie, what with their glittering armor and their Morion helmets, and I remember that Pocahontas sings something about the color of the wind or something like that. If I remember correctly, there was also a raccoon that was supposed to be pretty important to the story. Were I to rewatch the movie today, I doubt I would enjoy it much.

Truth be told, there are a variety of reasons why. Part of the reason is I’m not that into musicals–the suspension of disbelief is usually too much for me. Part of the reason is I missed out on the chance to see the Matrix in theaters because I had to stay home to watch Pocahontas with my younger brother. As someone who really enjoys film and philosophy, I am still aggrieved that I missed out on the chance to see the first Matrix on the silver screen. But if I am going to be completely honest, what really bothers me about the movie Pocahontas is the lack of respect for the history and the people involved in the story.

I understand, of course, that Pocahontas is intended for a young audience and that young kids aren’t necessarily interested in a historically accurate tale. Nonetheless, I still find it disturbing that Disney took so many creative licenses with the historical facts related to the Jamestown colony and disagree with the idea that historical fiction ought to be sanitized if it’s intended for a young audience. For proof why this is not the case, I would urge readers to pick up Blood on the River.

Blood on the River was required reading in my elementary school and my first introduction to historical fiction. The book is very much intended for a young audience but I suspect if I were to re-read it today, I would still enjoy the book. Told through the eyes of a young orphan forced to join the Virginia Company, the story does a great job of capturing the wonder, confusion, and fear a young boy may have experienced upon arriving in 17th century Jamestown.

Well-known historical figures like Pocahontas and James Smith both make appearances in the novel, but unlike Disney’s Pocahontas, Elise Carbone never tries to suggest the two had any kind of romantic relationship. Moreover, Carbone does not try to elide the fact that Pocahontas was pretty young when she met the English, likely 12 or so, and her decision to stay true to the established facts should be commended.

As almost anyone familiar with the history of Jamestown knows, it has a pretty sordid history. The colonists who founded Jamestown brought little in the way of practical skills, but they did bring plenty of gold-mining equipment, and knew next to nothing of living conditions in the Chesapeake region. Some of the people who were most knowledgeable, the Powhatans for example, did share information and resources on occasion, but the English had a bad habit of attacking Powhatan settlements which kind of put a damper on peaceable cross-cultural interactions. Owing in part to their inability to forge a positive, working relationship with their indigenous neighbors, and their profound ignorance of agriculture, the colonists often went weeks without food. These food shortages were often times severe, so much so that more than half of the colonists died during the Starving Time, and drove many of the Christian settlers to cannibalism.

Genocide and famine don’t exactly make for light reading, but I think Carbone does a good job of alluding to these events in a way that won’t be off-putting for young readers. Moreover, I think the way the protagonist, a real-life historical figure who went by the name of Samuel Collier, deals with these crises make for compelling reading. At one point in the book, the protagonist has to decide whether he will kidnap a baby from his mother to save the child from coming famine or if he will leave the baby with a mother who insists the Jamestown food shortage is no serious matter. The choice that Collier makes sticks with me to this day and gives the book an emotional depth unmatched by the Pocahontas movie.

In all fairness, Disney is in the money-making business, not the telling historical-stories-accurately business. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that Blood on the River was a big success with readers. The book has over 4,000 ratings on Amazon and averages 3.99 stars which is pretty good by most metrics. Moreover, it’s also a top-seller in multiple Amazon categories which is impressive considering the book was released only 12 years ago. I’m sure Pocahontas helped Disney bring in tons of money, but I suspect the movie will fade from the cultural lexicon in the years to come and will hurt Disney’s brand in the long-run. Whitewashed historical fiction just isn’t as popular as it used to be and fans have increasingly high standards when it comes to historical fiction. Owing to Carbone’s respect for history and people involved in the Jamestown colony, I suspect Blood on the River will continue to rack up many positive ratings and will continue to be read by young students all across the country.

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