For most folks, everyday life is a series of innocuous moments: getting up, eating breakfast, kissing your family before you leave the house for work, the commute, the job, and then home to start all over the next day. Fairly routine and fairly mundane. For undercover agents within the U.S. Customs Department, their day starts as simply as everyone else’s, but can quickly devolve into a series of life-or-death choices in a blink. Bringing one story of intrigue and espionage to light is director Brad Furman’s adaptation of U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur memoir The Infiltrator, featuring Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Amy Ryan, Benjamin Bratt, and Diane Kruger.
The Infiltrator takes us through the high-wire act that a small undercover team must manage in order to dismantle the money laundering machine fueling Pablo Escobar’s cocaine business in the 1980s. Lead by Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) and Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), these two Customs agents develop relationships from the bottom-up, carefully navigating the minefield of high-octane personalities that inhabit one of the largest drug-trafficking networks in history.
The trailer makes Furman’s adaptation look like a balls-to-the-wall action thriller and that would be the furthest thing from the truth. The Infiltrator is a slow burn; building tension by focusing on the relationships Mazur cultivates and maintains. With the focus on relationships, dramatic tension doesn’t come quickly and crash down – as we expect from any will-they-live-or-not thriller, but rolls slowly like a wave in the ocean, building toward a massive crest in the finale. By abandoning a more standard cinematic structure, the narrative within The Infiltrator feels more realistic and unpredictable. In a world of Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible sagas, a story like this doesn’t sound appealing, but it delivers in a satisfying way. The hardest task a character-driven story has is to make the audience empathize with its characters and Furman finds a way to make us worry for the safety of both Mazur’s team and the drug dealers and bosses he comes to know intimately. Like Mazur, we are invited into their homes, into their lives. As such, we come to see them as living, breathing humans who acknowledge their choices in the world, not caricatures. The significance of this adds to the constant tension of the narrative, building to a finale that’s gratifying, though bittersweet.
Outside of Furman, the bulk of the work laid on Bryan Cranston’s shoulders. Though most know him as from the AMC series Breaking Bad as The-One-Who-Knocks, Cranston has a storied history in film and television, which shows in his multifaceted performance as Mazur. The narrative requires him to exude vulnerability and power in near simultaneous moments. Smartly, The Infiltrator frequently reminds the audience that though Mazur is a highly accomplished undercover officer, he’s also human. Brilliantly, Cranston’s natural facial lines and creases are accentuated to assist in visually demonstrating the psychological toll of Mazur’s dual-life. Helping to carry the load is John Leguizamo as Mazur’s partner Emir Abreu and Diane Kruger as Mazur’s undercover fiancée, Kathy Ertz. Gratefully, Lequizamo isn’t regulated to “funny man” status as would be expected from the multihyphenate comedian; rather, he is given ample opportunities to just how capable he is. Similarly, Diane Kruger’s Kathy is not there for distraction or arm candy. Her role becomes just as significant as Mazur’s and her position is never downplayed or reduced to “damsel” status. In an all-star cast, the only one underused is Amy Ryan as the Mazur’s supervisor, who appears briefly, speaks bluntly, and somehow manages to steal the spotlight from Cranston every time.
Credit must be given to Furman’s cinematographer and editor for the exquisite recreation of the 1980s. The set design, wardrobe, accessories, along with the lighting, music, and shot arrangement make The Infiltrator feel like it dig-up from a vault, rather than shot in the present. Special note about the music: Furman often uses it, not to set tone, but as a narrative tool to state what the characters can’t. Using it in this way, doesn’t remove the audience from the moment, but enhances it; requiring the audience to pay more attention to the details surrounding each scene. Additionally, the use of the opening shot of Cranston plays nicely when compared to one of the final shots of Cranston. Pay special attention to this because it seems to serve, not as bookends, but as signifiers of something special.
My singular (read: small) complaint with the film lies in the introduction. Whole scenes zip by at a distracting pace seemingly in an effort to get the story to a specific point so it can slow down to take its time. The gamble Furman takes by rushing the introduction does feel calculated and a wise move. It may be a touch dizzying, but once it slows, Furman enables the audience to learn as Mazur learns and connect with each member of his team as he does; whether they are friend or foe. These relationships ground the story to make it successful.
When true stories are adapted for stage or screen, I often wonder how much was dramatized for the sake of entertainment. Given the slow pacing of the story, the focus on characters instead of splashy action sequences, The Infiltrator removes all doubt that this is grounded in reality. A reality that most average citizens are unaware of and should be in awe of. The story of Robert Mazur and his team is a truly remarkable one, clearly brought to life delicately by Brad Furman with as much respect as possible to the living and the dead, making The Infiltrator a refreshing cinematic tale in a sea of summer spectacles.
Final Score: 4 out of 5