GFF REVIEW: ‘Killing Escobar’ (2021) is a Questionable Documentary About an Assassination Attempt in the Amazon

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“A lack of thorough investigation and an emphasis on delivery style rather than information make this an odd and uncomfortable watch.”

Killing Escobar styles itself as a true story that’s stranger than fiction.  A film that has to be seen to be believed and that unpacks a previously untold piece of history. It largely concerns Peter McAleese who, along with a group of British and Australian mercenaries, was hired to assassinate notorious drug-lord Pablo Escobar in the early 1980s. Certainly it is a unique story, but it isn’t nearly as strange or as impressive as the film wants you to think it is.

First of all, it should be pointed out that their mission did not succeed. We know from history that Escobar was killed in 1993. Therefore, how the film addresses this failure is crucial to its success. It opens with main subject, McAleese, near-dead on the side of a mountain in the Amazon and establishes this moment as it’s central set-piece and builds the story around it. So, while we know they fail, we don’t know how or why they failed. The film moves backwards from here, telling the story of the entire assassination plot, leading us back around to this opening scene.

Director David Whitney primarily uses talking heads and some reconstructed scenes (like the opening) to add elements of tension to the narrative. Which should always be approached cautiously as it’s adding an element of dramatization to a real story. Whitney is trying to engage the audience with constructed scenes rather than let the narrative do that for him.  

We’re first introduced to McAleese as a soldier in Angola. For a number of years, he and a few of his team mates worked as mercenaries. McAleese seems very casual about his involvement in these past conflicts. As he gives his account, it is undeniable that he makes for an incredibly honest source. When he’s initially approached to kill Escobar, he accepts his job almost without question. He describes it as any other military operation, yet it is important to note that this was never a legitimate job. McAleese and his comrades were hired by a rival cartel and it would be taking place under their supervision in complete secrecy. As far as questioning the morals of the job, he admits that he simply didn’t; “You can’t moralise with someone like that. I never saw it as a murder. I saw it as a target.” As an ex-special forces soldier McAleese has likely had to see and do things we can only imagine and he appears to have made his peace with that. However, what is more challenging is the film’s apparent lack of concern.

A debate around the morals of killing a criminal, especially one of Escobar’s notoriety, will probably never produce a single, clear, correct answer. Yet, it is nonetheless a debate worth having. Because Whitney fails to have a discussion around this at all it creates a rising sense of discomfort. He provides very few sources, other than McAleese himself, and his use of reconstruction starts to turn this piece of history into an action movie. He cuts between the reconstruction and the talking heads with a deliberate flare and sense of cool. An undeniably bizarre choice given the number of innocent lives that are later revealed to have been lost or damaged in this botched operation. Indeed, towards the end McAleese offers some self-reflection on his actions, which is undercut by that fact that, up until this point, he’s been depicted like some geezer in a Guy Ritchie movie off on a lads’ summer holiday.

The lack of any investigation or discussion and the odd, light-hearted tone guts any tension from the film. It’s attempts to build a sense of mystery and intrigue in the opening scene is completely lost and starts to make the whole operation, perhaps unfairly, feel like a farce. Ultimately the film doesn’t have an interesting enough story on its hands. When we finally learn what happened to McAleese and his crew the film has already managed to undermine any sense of pathos it was hoping to achieve. There may be a reflection on violence and bravery buried somewhere here, but it’s lost in the film’s own shallow nature.

Dir: David Whitney

Prod: Nick Taussig, Michael McAvoy, Alan Clements

Cast: Peter McAleese

Header image courtesy of COSMIC CAT and BBC FILMS