Killing Escobar, review: an enthralling documentary about an outlandish assassination plot
Before reaching the small screen, Killing Escobar (BBC Two) had a limited cinema release. At which point the Guardian critic summarised it as a film “that shines a light on a squalid corner of British post-imperial legacy”, which is about the most Guardian way possible of describing an extraordinary real-life thriller about a band of British mercenaries who took on the mission of assassinating the world’s most powerful drugs lord in the 1980s.
This engrossing tale was told through two men who planned the operation, Peter McAleese and Dave Tomkins. It glamorised the mission to some extent, thanks to Tomkins, a colourful figure who boasted: “I was the guy who could get you anything, anywhere. Bombs, missiles, artillery rounds… you name it, I shipped it.”
It was Tomkins who took the video footage of what could be mistaken for a lads’ holiday – joking about each other’s fashion sense, larking about in a luxurious pad – until the camera alighted upon the cache of weapons, or filmed them training for an assault in which they would be outnumbered by Escobar’s 80 guards but would carry the advantage of having enough ammunition to kill 2,000 men.
Director David Whitney stitched this footage alongside interviews with the main players (including a fixer for the rival Cali Cartel, which had ordered the hit and promised Tomkins an extra million dollars to bring back Escobar’s severed head). The linear storytelling was broken up by a reconstruction of McAleese in the jungle, in dire straits. If you came to this without knowing Escobar’s fate, it added an extra layer of drama: did the mission succeed?
The most absorbing parts of the film were those in which we learned how the mission was planned, from an airborne recce of Escobar’s ranch to footage of McAleese delivering an eve-of-battle pep talk. And when it came to the morality of the exercise – well, the US authorities weren’t falling over themselves to put an end to it. It was possible to marvel at the audacity of these men while accepting that they were not heroes.