Billy Corben knows how to let people tell their own stories. That might sound easy, but it’s not. In films like “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Screwball,” he draws fascinating anecdotes from people and really understands how to cut together sound bites to form a narrative. Let people feel comfortable enough to tell their own stories, and they will give you what you need. This is absolutely the case with this week’s riveting “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami,” which sees the Florida filmmaker returning to the world of drugs and crime in Southern Florida for a six-episode breakdown of the story of Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, two of the most notable drug dealers in the history of the country.
Cuban exiles, Magluta and Falcon became the kings of an operation that smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States (maybe over 100 tons actually). An empire that stretched to a reported $2 billion, they naturally became a target of the war on drugs in the 1980s, but the story of “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami” isn’t a seedy breakdown of a criminal organization that glamorizes a violent and deadly lifestyle. In fact, Corben’s series really focuses on the legal proceedings against the two men, including a first trial that was altered greatly via jury tampering, and an eventual series of decisions by one of the key players who basically took Magluta down.
Corben lets the people involved tell their stories, and he gets amazing ones from all sides of this incredible tale, including criminals, authorities, and even a few of the jurors (this story gets insane with jury stories in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, including a physical alteration in the jury room and multiple revelations of payouts to jurors). There’s a revealing playfulness to the interviews here that gives the project its energy. One might argue that some of these career criminals are almost too comfortable—you might pause to ask yourself if you should be so entertained by drug kingpins—but Corben and his team deftly walk that line where it doesn’t feel like he’s elevating the criminal scene as much as revealing the colorful characters that defined it.
And it’s not just the criminals. “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami” develops into a much more well-rounded project by spending almost as much time with the men and women on the other side of the law, including the prosecutors who tried to take down Magluta and Falcon. Even the defense team, including the amazing Albert Krieger, get some wonderful sound bites, but Marilyn Bonachea really steals the series. She’s the one that viewers will be talking about, a key player in the organization who kept it going until she felt it betrayed her.
While critics often deride the prevalence of what can be called “talking head documentaries,” there’s still something to seeing a project that consists entirely of interviews and archival footage that’s put together this well. Sure, there are charts that keep viewers aware of the relationships between these players, but it’s hard to unpack a story as complex as this one purely through interviews. There’s no narrator to break it down and yet we never get lost. And, most importantly, Corben finds a way to balance the information and the entertainment value, sometimes leaning a bit too much into over-editing to mimic the party lifestyle of its subject, but never enough to derail the project or dip it into something that feels exploitative.
Someone late says that this story is “the story of Miami.” It’s the tale of two angry kids who developed an empire, becoming folk heroes for their part of the country. They flaunted their illegal activities, even living in plain sight while being fugitives. They thought they were untouchable, and they were right for a long time. However, one can learn about Falcon and Magluta from any number of news articles. What makes “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami” different is the personalities it allows to shine on all sides of the story. After all, every memorable King needs to have an interesting court.
Whole series screened for review.