Though I loved “Cocaine Cowboys” for its numerous profiles of some really strange and distinct characters involved in the late ’70s and early ’80s drug trade (from drug runners to hitmen to newscasters), I think the film is most remarkable for its full and rich portrait of the city of Miami.
“Cocaine Cowboys” seems to function almost as a tragedy, with Miami as the central character. We start with a peaceful and quiet South Florida town; nice beaches, clumps of retirees; very little crime. And we see the city become intoxicated with drug money, unsavory villains from South America and Cuba descending upon Miami and transforming the culture. Violence, skyrocketing murder rates, shoot-outs in clubs and restaurants and malls. But also (it seems) money and cocaine and fast cars for everyone, and new skyscrapers rising daily.
Really, this movie shows us the birth of Miami as an international city, and the drugs and dead bodies that serve as the city’s foundation. It’s a remarkable story, shocking and scary and sad, almost doesn’t seem possible, but–much like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” for Chicago and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” for NY City–it reminds us that most major metropolitan areas are indeed born of conflict, violence, even if we forget about it a few decades later when the gangsters are gone and the skyline sparkles with new condominiums.
Paired with “The U” (the ESPN documentary about the Miami Hurricanes), “Cocaine Cowboys” is a stranger-than-fiction look at an era (and a city) that doesn’t seem possible. Every minute of both of these movies will have you watching, wide-eyed, shaking your head. This happened?