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Film Review: In ‘Sicario,’ What Happens When FBI Agent Threatens to Expose True War on Drugs

United States government employees, who are willing to challenge internal corruption, are an increasingly endangered species. Personnel who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, or abuse of authority are likely to be zealously prosecuted or lose their job. Officials in oversight positions are likely to brush aside or cover up reports of wrongdoing—and then possibly target individuals who complained.

This reality makes the film, “Sicario,” directed by Denis Villeneuve, so enthralling. It explores the degeneration of government agencies in the War on Drugs through FBI agent Kate Macer, who Emily Blunt brilliantly plays as a character who always has to do things by the law. It depicts how clandestine operatives guard against all who might blow the whistle on them through someone who has relied on accountability to keep her grounded in life.

In the film, Macer is part of a drug task force. While conducting a raid in Chandler, Arizona, her team uncovers a house with dozens of bodies. An explosion goes off and tragically kills two officers and wounds her.

After finding the house of horrors, Macer is offered a spot on a team led by a Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Though provided little information, she is told they will be going after the men responsible for the corpses she found.

Much to Macer’s surprise, the first operation undertaken is in Juarez, Mexico. The way it is carried out deeply unsettles Macer because multiple individuals allegedly involved with the drug lord they are pursuing are summarily executed.

Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) appears on the plane, which takes her to the base where the operation into Juarez is launched. He has some past history with the Mexican drug trade, but no one tells her why he is part of the operation. That amplifies her feeling that this is some kind of black operation that may not be legal.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, a Texan best known for his role as Deputy Chief David Hale in “Sons of Anarchy,” was inspired by the way Mexico is no longer a place one can just drive down to because it is ruled by lawlessness. He wanted to make a movie about Mexico being dominated by drugs, corruption, and how the “machine of the American government has been dealing with these problems,” which spill over the border.

Through research, Sheridan not only uncovered details of how the drug trade developed into a major business, but he encountered a “world of classified CIA spy programs, secret DEA deals, cartels who murder journalists researching their operations, and “houses of death.” He slowly arrived at a story that treated the War on Drugs as a war for control of the drug trade instead of merely a war against drugs.

The film’s story bears a similarity to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Each development in the mission to find this drug lord is viewed through the strong female character played superbly by Blunt. Her morals are increasingly tested, and her commitment to the rules puts her in situations where her life is in danger.

There is no Wagner like in “Apocalypse Now,” but the fine cinematography from Roger Deakins does include sprawling aerial shots with helicopters entering the frame as they swoop down and fly along the border wall. Deakins’ shots, along with the pulsing score, amplify the dread of what is to come for the task force. Some shots have an iconic feel to them; for example, when the sun sets and team members with their helmets and thermal vision gear march to a tunnel.

Given that Deakins worked on Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) starring John Hurt, it makes sense some of the cinematography would have a kind of dystopian feel. The film also has this feeling because Villeneuve approached the project with a perspective that it explored “cycles of violence” and how even people we consider to be good choose violence to try and solve the problem of violence.

“Sicario” presents no answer to the violence in the War on Drugs. It does, however, point to the reality of how the U.S. government fuels—and even instigates—violence through operations. In that sense, the film can be considered a kind of anti—”Zero Dark Thirty” because it does not champion the regular incursions into Mexico.

In the film, the more agencies become lawless, the more their actions are identical to those of violent cartels. That does not mean it promotes a message that U.S. agencies should follow the rule of law better. The ambiguity and bleakness of the film often presents a reality that the world has become too violent for officials to worry about accountability and rules. Nevertheless, parts of the film appropriately reflect on how security agencies get away with trampling over democratic principles and the rule of law while shielding themselves from accountability.

Like “Good Kill,” a 2014 film about a drone operator who increasingly questions his role in the War on Terrorism, viewers follow a character who believes in the mission but objects to how it is being done. They struggle to hold on to their sense of right and wrong and long for confirmation that their moral compass remains correct.

Blunt’s gripping performance ought to help others empathize with good government employees, who commit themselves to government missions like fighting terrorists or drugs that wind up clashing with their morals. Those who have the integrity to stand up and challenge authority, like Blunt’s character, do so at great risk to their livelihood. When they do take a stand, they deserve support instead of acts of intimidation intended to instill fear and make them feel further isolated.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."