Oscar Hopefuls Contending with Drug War History

(Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by our contributing editor Matthew June.)

For your consideration… Oscar contenders are hitting theaters, awards season is coming, and more films than you might realize have ties to the history of U.S. drug policy. Although the film barely shows any trafficking and rarely even mentions drugs, the context of Sicario will be obvious to most viewers. Hyper-realistic, violent, and morally ambiguous, the film plumbs the depths of our failed drug war and its devastating consequences for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Without much hope for a viable solution, the film also offers no explanation for why the U.S. finds itself in this position.

Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)

Sicario Poster (Lionsgate Motion Pictures) & Bridge of Spies Poster (DreamWorks Pictures)

Next on the docket for Academy voters, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies arrives in theaters this weekend. At first glance, the latest starring vehicle for Tom Hanks might seem like the antithesis of Sicario. It is a period-piece drama with a moral protagonist helping Cold War America retrieve one of its heroes. Bridge of Spies is based on the life of former Nuremburg attorney, James B. Donovan (Hanks), who successfully negotiated the release of Captain Francis Gary Powers when the Soviet Union shot down his U-2 spy plane. After this mission – and the focus of Spielberg’s film – ended, however, Donovan took on another assignment that gave him an important supporting role in the development of federal drug policy. Exploring that overlooked history, in turn, offers another vantage for surveying the blighted backdrop of Sicario.

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The Points Interview — John Markert

Editor’s Note:  Hooked in Film: Substance Abuse on the Big Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2013), by John Markert, is due out in June.  Below, author Markert kindly offers his responses to the Points interview’s palatte of probing questions.

Markert-cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender would understand.

Few people have every used heroin or cocaine, yet just about everyone knows that you “shoot” heroin and roll a dollar bill to snort “a line” of powdered cocaine.  These images linger in the mind’s eye because we’ve seen people do this in the movies, even if the images are inaccurate — shooting heroin is rare today, though it continues to be the dominate route of administration depicted in contemporary film.

Movies in contemporary society are a primary way of imparting information about our social world.  We may rely more heavily on film to tell us about drugs than about other social topics since few people have first-hand knowledge about illegal drugs.  Movies, then, become a primacy source of information about who uses what kind of drug, the effect of the drug on the individual, how problematic the drug might (or might not) be in society, and what should be done about the problem, if, in fact, film frames it as a problem.

Heroin, for example, is clearly depicted in film as a deadly drug.  In film, you stick a needle in your arm and you’re as good as dead.  Film ignores the fact that many regular heroin users “chip” at their use and moderate their use depending on heroin’s availability. Film also ignores the fact that while 1.5 percent have played with heroin at some point in their lives, only 0.2 percent can be considered “regular” (past year) users, which means that many people who have experimented with heroin do not become addicts.  The deadly consequences of heroin use depicted in film, though not quite accurate, may not necessarily be a bad thing because it could discourage the casual experimenter from even considering trying heroin. Continue reading →