“How to Make Money Selling Drugs”: War as Video Game

Writer-director Matthew Cooke's documentary makes the case that America's war on drugs is and always has been highly deadly, deeply corrupt, and insanely wasteful. Clearly Cooke thought a lot about how to package this stinging social critique, and ultimately he uses too much packaging: The film is a mock-infomercial, with step-by-step instructions organized to resemble the levels of a video game, including all the needed cheat codes to work one's way up from corner man to cartel lord. Cooke's flippant tone might be the only possible way to sugar-coat this difficult material, but the tradeoff is a compromise of his moral authority. By the time we're talking about Mexico's 50,000 drug-war dead, or America's racist and revolting incarceration epidemic, or for that matter the widespread ravages of addiction, it's less easy to trust Cooke's presumed outrage. To sustain his entreaty, Cooke gathers famous commentators — 50 Cent, Eminem, David Simon, Woody Harrelson — along with a few variously grizzled veterans of the game. The most compelling of these might be Barry Cooper, an erstwhile Texas task-forcer who one day tried the weed he'd confiscated and had a quasi-religious conversion. A character you can almost imagine being portrayed by Woody Harrelson in a different kind of movie, actually, Cooper's now a mogul in the growing business of bust-avoidance. “I've got a lot of ways to sting cops,” he says. “It just takes money.” Long live the American Dream.

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