It's funny to look back on your childhood and recognize that momentous events from your formative years are seldom among your personal memories. I have no recollection of President Ronald "Ronoldus Magnus" Reagan being shot by John Hinckly, nor do I recall the bomb that was "Ishtar" when it hit theaters. I do recall the Challenger explosion but that's because I was watching in Dr. G's third grade class in 1986, which is also why I missed both "Predator" and "Aliens" in the theater that same year.
People that lived during those years have very different memories than those of us raised during those years, and it's fascinating to examine the dynamic. Take for example the show "Miami Vice." Personally, I never was allowed to watch it because it was a cop show where the heroes were dark and the violence was serious. Naturally, I gravitated towards "Sledge Hammer" (which remains David Rasche's defining role whether he likes it or not) because it was loud, silly, and over-the-top in a fun, childish way. But one thing "Miami Vice" was centered around was the booming cocaine industry in south Florida and the influence the drug cartels had on both the state and popular culture as a whole completely escaped me.
It did not, however, escape those who survived some of the bloodiest years in an American city since Prohibition. Cocaine Cowboys dives headlong into the 1970s where everything began, and continues right up through the present. This documentary gets so many things right that it is virtually impossible to be bored by any of it. The trick behind a solid documentary is having an excellent story teller behind the scenes, but Cocaine Cowboys goes a few steps further by having excellent story tellers in front of the camera as well. For example, we immediately meet John Roberts and Mickey Munday who prove themselves fascinating to listen to even as they talk about things no sane person would ever do.
Roberts was a guy looking to get rich any way he could as fast as he could. He did some low-level dealing here and there most notably with importing pot. He brought in as much as he could as fast as he could, and eventually met up with Munday who was a redneck bush pilot. Munday came up with various smuggling routes and flew the plane into the state until there was so much pot that you couldn't give it away, much less sell it.
Then they switched to bringing in cocaine from the Columbian cartels and thus began the greatest influx of cash that Miami has ever seen, before and since. But along with the drugs came some bloodthirsty criminals looking to carve out their own piece of the city and the police were overwhelmed almost overnight. The resultant drug war makes Scarface look tame by comparison, and even though I routinely mock that horrible, horrible film I realize now that it was a parody that, if anything, didn't go far enough. Pretty much everything seen in that film had a basis in facts pulled from the streets of Miami from 1975-1980. Yeah, it was that deranged of a town and frankly I'm amazed that the place wasn't nuked from orbit just to be sure.
Cocaine Cowboys is just as energized as its subject matter, but does the viewer a service by peeling back the glossy sheen of the 1980s and examining what was really going on underneath. There are dozens of interviews with the criminals and cops involved and some of the best and worst stories come from the same source - one of the top killers in the drug wars who is interviewed behind bars. His name escapes me but he instantly proves charming and likeable, and his stories of how he grew up are great. Then he starts getting into the details of how he and others killed people and that charm remains in tact. It's then you realize the guy is practically souless (with the exception regarding his stance on children), and his stories become truly scary confessions.
This is a magnificent documentary that covers all aspects of the Miami drug wars and shows its lasting impact on the city and the culture that survived. The "where are they now" segment at the end caps everything off beautifully and the final line of text made me laugh out loud, and drew actual applause from My Fair Lady. Don't miss this one.