Much has been said and written about the growing divide in American society between left and right, including in the pages of this magazine. But there is another growing divide in this country that is arguably more urgent, one that transcends ideological differences. It is a fight between those who seek to preserve order and civility, and those ready to wield chaos—either for their beliefs, for their personal gain, or perhaps for its own sake.
It is worth examining what happens to a society that breaks down due to internecine violence, especially as America and Western civilization drift downward into a spiral of tribalism, division, and open hostility. The consequences are so dire that we must take an accounting of not only what we find wrong with our country, but also what we value and would stand to lose if forces of chaos were to prevail.
Two recent releases—one a feature film and one an episodic series—that are based on events in very recent history show what happens when divergent violent forces within a society take over. The theatrically released Belfast, an autobiographical film written and directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, depicts a working-class family living through “the troubles”—lasting from the 1960s to the late 1990s—in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Narcos: Mexico is a dramatic Netflix series in its third season—an expansive, complex narrative which spans decades of history depicting the rise of the powerful drug cartels in Mexico.
Belfast focuses on events surrounding the outbreak of violence in August 1969, and opens with a siege of a neighborhood by a violent, anti-Catholic mob. We see these events, and their effects on the family and community, through the eyes of a child named Buddy (Jude Hill). In an interview discussing the film, Branagh described his own memory of playing in the street as a boy when he heard what sounded like an oncoming train, but what was in fact a roving mob making its way in his direction.
Despite these brief and unevenly spaced flashes of violence, the film retains, through most of its duration, a discomfiting sunny disposition. Considering that children were being shot dead in the streets and neighborhoods were being burned to the ground, the characters seem decidedly impervious, and all of it is incongruously scored to a soundtrack of what is basically Van Morrison’s greatest hits. This demonstration of the fine line between order and chaos, the thin veneer of society, is glimpsed only briefly. Branagh elects to focus on the positive, which perhaps makes the film more appealing to a wider audience. Whether it does justice to the subject matter is questionable.
Belfast’s narrative focuses on a Protestant family living in a besieged Catholic neighborhood. Residents live behind makeshift barricades and are forced to pay financial tribute to militant Protestant gangs. They are given an opportunity to move to England, and must decide whether to abandon their home and traditional culture.
Given the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, the film surprisingly touches very lightly on religion, thumbing its nose at religion in general rather than picking a side. Some decidedly anti-Catholic remarks come from the protagonists, such as “Catholicism is the religion of fear” and disparaging remarks about the sacraments and indulgences. These are intended to be offset by the lampooning of a fire-and-brimstone Protestant minister, sweating and spitting about damnation, commanding his flock to choose the road of righteousness. The film takes a pass on the very weighty spiritual matters that lie at the heart of the conflict in favor of a more universalist viewpoint. It is an uncourageous decision, and contributes to an inherent superficiality of the entire work.
What Belfast does best is show the value of family and traditional social structure. Buddy’s world is filled with watchful, supportive neighbors and family—not just mother, father, and siblings, but aunts, uncles, and cousins—who are a quotidian presence in his life, looking out for him and steering him, for better or worse. This is quite a contrast to Western civilization, which grows more isolated every day as neighbors fear their neighbors, family is often distant and isolated, and “stranger danger” is considered the norm.
The film is exquisitely photographed, with every shot a mastery of form, light, and composition. But the film looks and feels like it is trying to be two things at once—an art film that also appeals to a wider audience. It thus runs the risk of alienating both audiences, but overall its merits outweigh its faults.
above: José María Yazpik as Juárez cartel boss Amado Carillo Fuentes in Narcos: Mexico – Season 3 (Netflix)
Where Belfast holds back against the darkness, Narcos: Mexico pulls no punches, and unlike Belfast is rated R with a capital “R.” Violence can often be a crutch in films, but the violence in Narcos: Mexico is not of the cartoonish, orgiastic type seen in films like Brian de Palma’s Scarface or Quentin Tarantino’s films. It serves the narrative and drives the complex message of the film. Belfast delivers its message in bright capital letters, practically with flashing neon arrows to point the way. But Narcos: Mexico makes the viewer work through the complexity of its characters and their relationships to each other, while also delivering an emotional gut punch.
In Narcos: Mexico Seasons 1 and 2, as well as in the original Narcos series, which focused largely on Columbia and Pablo Escobar, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and its agents have served as the moral center, with cartel members, cops, military, CIA, and other government officials being largely unredeemable. The series employs a technique similar to South American literature, using an intelligent narrator who guides the audience through the complexity and controls the narrative. Different DEA agents served as the narrator through the seasons, but this shifts in Narcos: Mexico season 3, as the narrator is female Mexican journalist Andrea Nuñez (Luisa Rubino), working to expose the rampant corruption in government and its ties to the cartels.
The Mexican drug cartels are referred to as “plazas,” which are centered around geographical locations. Season 3 focuses on the Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Juárez plazas in the early 1990s, namely around the bosses Amado Carillo Fuentes in Juárez, the Arellano Félix family in Tijuana and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Sinaloa. These plazas grew from an unorganized group of simple marijuana farmers to a sophisticated cocaine distribution network for the Cali cartel in Columbia, becoming the chief transporters of narcotics into the United States. In addition to the DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), there is a team of journalists risking their lives to unravel these organizations from the top down, but due to government corruption whatever progress they make is often short-lived, like a game of “Whac-a-Mole.” The accidental assassination of the beloved Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport in May 1993 by Cholo hit men looking for El Chapo shocked the nation and triggered aggressive Mexican military efforts against the cartels which are ongoing to this day. But even that was not enough to mobilize a sufficient effort to surmount the influence that the cartels’ untold billions have over authority.
The jaw-dropping corruption and breathtakingly brazen violence which has contributed to a moral degradation of Mexican society is what the series illuminates best. It is a tragedy of epic proportions for the Mexican people, and a cautionary tale to Americans as to what can happen if governmental authority completely erodes from within.
Anyone who has stood at the U.S.-Mexico border in cities like Juárez, Tijuana, or Nogales, looking at both sides simultaneously, can tell you of the shocking disparity that can be created by an imaginary line in the sand. A major question that one is left with after watching this series is why has it happened there and not here? Is it culture? They are descended from Europeans just like the majority of Americans. Is it religion? Mexicans are some of the most devout Christians in the world. The answers remain elusive.
If those on the left feel there is systemic injustice within our current legal system, how would they handle dealing with cartel execution squads or vigilante mobs? They should talk to the people in the organized-crime-addled nations like Mexico, El Salvador, or Honduras to get a better context of the meaning of injustice, these same people who, en masse, risk life and limb every day in desperate illegal attempts to try to come and live within our current “unjust” system.
These films give a prime example of what H. Scott Trask highlights in his Remembering the Right, Vol. 2 piece on philosopher George Santayana:
Santayana believed, with good reason, that chaos was the natural state of mankind, and tyranny the usual remedy. That was why ‘perfect order is so rare and precarious’ and why the few islands of permanence and beauty that exist must be closely guarded lest they too become engulfed.
But as these aforementioned films also show, tyranny is not solely meted out by the hand of government, from the top down, as it were, but from any individual or syndicate that wields sufficient power. Those who seek to guard this “perfect order” are left to pick their poison.
left to right above: Dame Judy Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds in Belfast (Focus Features)