Given that Hollywood might have more per capita drug use than anywhere else on the planet, it’s hard to view the demonization of dealers in so many movies as anything but craven hypocrisy. That said, I was ill prepared for the opposite extreme: the cocaine distributor as naive but well-meaning entrepreneur. That’s the near-hallucinatory line of Blow, which purports to tell the true story of George Jung (played by Johnny Depp), one of the first Americans to make (and lose) a fortune distributing coke for Colombia’s Medellin cartel. Directed by Ted Demme from a script credited to David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes, the film presents its outlaw hero as loyal, conscientious, and heartbreakingly wronged—a martyr to double-crossing buddies and shrewish women (among them his loveless mother). When the picture builds to the news that Jung’s precious daughter has never visited him in prison and then closes with a haggard photo of the real man (who is not scheduled for release until 2014), you might find yourself looking around for ushers with collection plates.
This is an extraordinary—and unfathomable—piece of whitewashing: a true snow job. Blow opens with the bankruptcy of George’s hardworking blue-collar dad (Ray Liotta), the abandonment by his shallow mom (Rachel Griffiths), and the boy’s vow never to be poor; then it explodes into a sunny Horatio Alger saga of the joys and rewards of smuggling grass at the height of the counterculture. The movie gets away with this sexy first section because marijuana is relatively unperilous (last year’s lame Saving Grace even made a comic heroine of a middle-aged Englishwoman forced by economic circumstances to cultivate pot) and because we know that George’s outcome will be grim. (He narrates the film, introducing himself by his federal prison number.) George builds his business on the beaches of Southern California with the help of his obese pal Tuna (Ethan Suplee); a swishy and acquisitive hairdresser named Derek (Paul Reubens); and an exuberant group of blond stewardesses (led by George’s ladylove, Barbara, played by Run LolaRun’s Franka Potente) who take turns lugging dope to Boston in big red suitcases. When he opens markets for poor Mexican pot farmers (and delights them with unexpected bonuses), George seems to be single-handedly liberating the Third World from poverty.
The scene goes bad, of course, but not in ways that are especially illuminating—unless you’re surprised by the lesson that nice guys finish last in the cocaine business. After he helps to create the American coke market and becomes suddenly obscenely wealthy, poor George learns that nothing can be counted on to last. To the horror of his dad, his mom betrays him to the feds; his friends cut him out of deals; and his hellion Colombian cokehead wife—the sultry toothpick Penélope Cruz—makes it impossible for him to retire. His destiny is sealed: You can almost hear the voice of Fate say, “Bummer, dude.”
On its own terms, Blow is just a dud—if a bitterly misogynistic one. It’s only when you go to its source—Bruce Porter’s brisk yet extraordinarily detailed account of the George Jung odyssey (just reissued by St. Martin’s Griffin)—that you realize it’s also virtually all lies. As coke smugglers go, it’s possible that Jung was a swell fellow (Porter seems to like him), but he was a player, an active one, and he’s lucky to be alive and healthy instead of dead like so many of his customers. He was even a free man when the book’s first edition was published in 1993, the year before he tried to move several hundred pounds of Mexican marijuana and was sentenced to 22 more years in prison. If anything, Fate cut him a helluva lot of slack.
Normally, Slate devotes a separate column to the ways in which historical movies hold or depart from facts, but no critique of Blow can ignore the astonishing ways in which events have been altered to turn its protagonist into a man of high moral principle and capacious soul. Jung skipped bail on his first arrest (agents intercepted 660 pounds of marijuana) because he didn’t want to go to prison, not because he needed to tend to the cancer-ridden love of his life. (The Love Story angle is a howl when you know it’s pure fantasy—Porter reports that Jung was apprehended at the Playboy Club putting the moves on a Britt Ekland look-alike.) In the movie, George is brought up short when a steely Colombian (Dan Ferro) asks a pilot charged with flying drugs for photos of his family and addresses of his children’s schools, but we learn from Porter it was George who routinely obtained that information. The real Jung didn’t retire from the business in disgust when his partner, Carlos Lehder (here called Diego Delgado), double-crossed him: He planned an assassination and only called it off when Colombians warned of a Mafia-style war. The movie’s George spends years devoting himself to his little girl and is arrested (ironically!) when his wife insists on throwing him a birthday party at which his ex-associates (and their drugs) are present. The real George was nabbed by an undercover agent after bringing 50 kilos of cocaine into the county. And what about the scene in which his hysterical wife calls him a “faggot,” forces his car off the road, then screams to the arriving police that George is a cocaine fugitive—one of the most florid pieces of male victimization ever filmed? Her betrayal might have seemed less monstrous if scripted the way it happened, with Jung walloping his wife in the face and breaking her nose.
Johnny Depp gives a focused, unsentimental performance, and his transformation from confident, slim-hipped, longhaired pretty boy to potbellied wreck seems to happen from within. He’d have real stature if the conception of the role weren’t so simple, so sweet, so fraudulent. Did studio executives fear that the audience would lose interest in George if he weren’t a sacrificial lamb? They got it backward. (The Sopranos has been spotty this year, but one reason it continues to be the most interesting show on television is that David Chase works hard to keep reminding us that these are fundamentally not nice people.) Meanwhile, for all George’s hyperbolic narration about cocaine exploding “like an atom bomb on American cities,” Blow manages to miss the story of the drug’s rise and fall almost completely—of what it meant to American and Colombian cultures, of the cities it blighted and the lives it destroyed. There might be reasons to reserve judgment on the poor Colombian farmers who grow and process coca as a way to escape starvation, but not on the George Jungs who expedited its delivery. Why shouldn’t we blame the messenger?