Snow Job

In Bruce Porter's 1993 nonfiction book Blow, the life of George Jung--his
rise from high school dropout in the working-class Boston suburb of Weymouth,
Massachusetts, to major 1970s trafficker of Colombian cocaine with $60 million
stashed away in a Panamanian bank, and his subsequent earthshaking fall--is
treated mostly as the bizarre, occasionally exciting story it is. Porter bases
his meat-and-potatoes journalistic account on extensive interviews with this
notorious American cousin of the Medellín drug cartel and with the police
officers and FBI agents who busted him. The book's chief fascination lies in its
spirited recounting of the hundreds of little twists and turns Jung's life took
over a 25-year period.

It comes as no big surprise that much of this complex, sometimes contradictory
biographical detail disappears in the film version of Blow or that the
film reduces the book's rich cast of idiosyncratic Hispanics to standard-issue
caricature. A movie, after all, doesn't have the luxurious amplitude of a book to
tell its story.

What's less defensible is the film's persistent effort to reconfigure the book's
reprehensible protagonist as a nice guy, a merry prankster who can't really be
accused of much more than excessive high jinks and fecklessness. Director Ted
Demme makes every effort to have us identify with George (played by Johnny Depp)
as fully and as early as possible. While the book incorporates a variety of
perspectives and thus allows us some welcome space outside the self-justifying
protagonist's claustrophobic orbit, the film relates the entire story from
George's point of view and through his voice-over narration. An amoral sociopath
is thus transmogrified into an endearing scamp.

There's no social justification for George's actions, nor is there even much
of an explanation (not as there is for, say, the murder committed by Bigger
Thomas--the complexly mediated protagonist in Richard Wright's Native
--whose motives are ambivalently grounded in racial injustice). The
filmmakers solve this problem by simply eliminating everything unpalatable from
George's past and adding a bunch of new stuff that plays on our sympathies. His
first girlfriend, for example, is made to die of cancer in an unconvincingly
sudden manner (nosebleed to funeral) just so George can have an excuse for
jumping bail, moping around, and dragging us along with him emotionally. The
payoff for this deviation from the facts is a scene in which George's dad (Ray
Liotta) tries to comfort him.

"You really loved her, didn't you?"

"Yeah, Dad, I really did," the disconsolate drug trafficker replies.

Later, after surveying his son's ill-gotten gains, George's father tells him:
"It's good if it makes you happy. Are you happy?"

"Yeah, Dad."

Pop's approval, then, preempts (even sidesteps) the issue of accountability, and
a cozy, phony warmth spreads like syrup over all. In the film's ongoing
celebration of George and his contribution to those happy, happy days of the
nationwide coke party, virtually nothing is mentioned about the horrors of
crack--what those snow-white lines become when they filter down a few
socioeconomic rungs.

The film takes George completely out of the business for a number of years (a
sabbatical that never happened in real life), so the big arrest during the sting
operation seems maximally ironic and tragic. Once his daughter is born, George
says he's now "sober as a judge" because he wants to be a good father, like his
dad--and that declaration, apparently, is supposed to absolve him. And once he's
in jail, an incredibly maudlin hallucinatory encounter with his
daughter--following a taped good-bye to his dying father (which actually is in
the book)--is meant to push every button. Unfortunately, by this point, the
buttons no longer work.

It could be argued, I suppose, that such highly regarded movies as Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
and Bonnie and Clyde also are guilty of
romanticizing criminal behavior and turning outlaws into heroes. But these films
are westerns (a genre that is by nature fraught with myth), so the mythic element
is honestly foregrounded and, to a large extent, what the films are about.
Plus, they're set in the remote past, always a foreign country. Blow, on
the other hand, is too closely associated with our present tawdry reality to be
able to mythologize itself legitimately (the last image we see is a smiling
photograph of the real George Jung, now a prisoner--a coda that adds a kind of
imprimatur of authenticity). And besides, Butch and the others, mostly local
troublemakers, weren't responsible--as George was, to a great extent--for a
blight that has wrecked millions of lives.

Is the audience for megastudio blockbusters--now a worldwide one--simply
unable to handle the complexities and irregularities of real life? Perhaps.
Norman Jewison's recent film The Hurricane, about the life of boxer Rubin
"Hurricane" Carter, also sanctified its central figure--who had, in fact, been a
petty criminal, despite being played by the beatific Denzel Washington. Yet when
audiences were alerted to The Hurricane's multiple distortions of Carter's
real life, the movie's take at the box office plunged. It's as though we want all
the rough edges rubbed off our biopics, but we don't want to know about it.
Tellingly, moviegoers I've spoken to about Ed Harris's excellent film
Pollock--which demonstrates the painter's genius while showing his
misogyny, drunkenness, and general unpleasantness--have said that while they sort
of liked the movie, they objected strongly to its "darkness."

Other filmmakers have been criticized for departing from historical fact--Oliver
Stone was pilloried for doing so in JFK and Nixon--but such
complaints seem misdirected. Directors and screenwriters should be free to offer
interpretations of grand events in history and larger-than-life historical
figures. They should have the same aesthetic leeway that we grant Don DeLillo,
for instance, for his imaginative rendering of Lee Harvey Oswald's life in his
masterful novel Libra. Though neither DeLillo nor Stone, perhaps, can be
compared to Shakespeare on a qualitative level, their approach is not dissimilar
from his. Would we presume to chastise the Bard because he changed the facts
regarding Richard III or Prince Hal? That Stone and DeLillo do not work in the
same medium is of little consequence. It seems dangerously elitist to argue that
it's okay for DeLillo to toy with the facts because his readers are educated
people who know that what they're reading isn't meant to be an accurate history,
but that Stone should not because his movies are available to all, including the
popcorn munchers who don't know any better.

The ambitions of Blow, in any case, are far more modest than those of
JFK or Nixon, whose very titles bespeak historical seriousness and
comprehensiveness. A little American flag is woven into Blow's opening
credits; initially I hoped that this meant the filmmakers were about to tell a
profoundly American story (rather than one merely set in America), the way that
early gangster pictures like Scarface were allegories of American
capitalism and entrepreneurship gone awry. But no such luck. Reduced to
essentials, the film is about how much fun it is to take drugs and make a huge
amount of money as a criminal, as long as you don't overdo it. There is a
halfhearted nod in the direction of providing a meaning for all this, or at
least a hint as to why George turned out the way he did (perhaps wisely, the
book avoids such speculation); but it doesn't go much beyond blaming bad Mom and
good Dad for fighting about money. At one point, George as a child says, "I
don't ever want to be poor," and that's it.

Maybe this outlaw movie can't help itself. Maybe, like many Hollywood films, it
has to forgo an engagement with the complexities of real life and conform
to the rigid predictability of genre conventions to stand a chance in the
marketplace. Some film historians argue that genre films have an important social
purpose because they reassure viewers that life does indeed have order,
regularity, and meaning. It's just as clear, however, that this same hand-holding
can reinforce an easy acceptance of the impoverished version of life that
Hollywood continually proffers us. In the movies of a socially committed director
like the recently deceased Stanley Kramer, who made such films as The Defiant
and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, social problems are at least
addressed, even if it's in a self-congratulatory, superficial way. The problem
with Blow is that it doesn't see any problem in the first place. It's all
just fun, fun, fun.

In Preston Sturges's 1941 classic Sullivan's Travels, the chastened
Hollywood film director played by Joel McCrea ultimately wises up about the
harshness of life during the Depression and decides that a filmmaker's real job
is not to present socially responsible stories that engage and enlighten his
audience while respecting the recalcitrant particulars of real life, but to make
'em laugh and make 'em cry. For better or worse, it's what the makers of the vast
majority of Hollywood films, including Blow, have been deciding and doing
ever since.