There are moments in Wildlands, a documentary made as a kind of tie-in but not really for Ghost Recon: Wildlands, where you might find yourself laughing at the dark absurdity of it all. Rusty Young, the writer who serves as this documentary’s documentarian, deadpan describing getting his friend Thomas McFadden out of San Pedro Prison by bribing three judges; George Jung, an old man, talking about how he tried to explain the concept of supply and demand to Colombian cartel leaders; when Young suggests to Jhon Jairo ‘Popeye’ Velásquez, Pablo Escobar’s hitman, that it is perhaps suspicious that Popeye was absent for the shootout that killed Escobar.
Popeye stares intensely for several seconds in response. Rusty stares back, proving he has incredible bladder fortitude.
The film is full of these moments, because the people involved in the drug trade, as undeniably sinister as some of them are, are still people. This is why George Jung is not only the man who introduced cocaine to the United States, but also an aging hippy sitting on a beach with a Corona, getting vestiges of lime caught on his lips, and why Pilar Angel, a drug smuggler-turned-informant, decided her own DEA moniker would be ‘The Princess’.
It’s an engaging film to watch. Young, as an interviewer, is a curious mix. His body language is open and friendly, often leaning towards the subject or mirroring their movements and language (and director Colin Offland has set up some of these shots beautifully to emphasise it), but his questions can become very direct, and when they do, it’s almost as much as a surprise to us as to the person he’s interviewing. Just like them, we’re drawn in, and when the interviews unearth some dark secrets we are unprepared.
Wildlands is a good documentary, especially if you have any interest in the subject of drug trafficking and/or cocaine. But therein lies the problem for Ubisoft. Wildlands is, as I said good. It’s mostly not about Bolivia, and instead frames the potential escalation of the cocaine trade there with how Columbia, under Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, almost became a Narco-state. It delves into the subtle layers that contributed over the years, including missteps the DEA themselves made. Ghost Recon: Wildlands, however, earned Ubisoft an official complaint from the Bolivian government before it was even out.
It seems that Ubi is in danger of having made a film that handles the whole topic better than the game it’s supposed to tie into. This doesn’t mean Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a bad game, necessarily, because a video game and a documentary have very different aims, but perhaps Ubisoft is about to demonstrate that one is definitively more suited to exploring the topic of drug trafficking than the other. One of the final messages the film gives is delivered by Adam Newbold, an ex Navy SEAL who spent time trying to break drug rings in Mexico. He was, basically, the person you play as in Ghost Recon: Wildlands — at least partially.
In the documentary Newbold talks about how fighting the war on drugs with physical bodies has been tried for a long time, and it doesn’t work. On stage, after the screening I saw, he sat with the quiet confidence of someone who has most definitely killed people, as a professional necessity rather than because he especially wanted to. He said that we need to stop glorifying drugs and the drug trade in our media. How many people, he asked, decided it’s probably pretty easy to cook meth after watching Breaking Bad?
This seems somewhat at odds with a video game about the drugs trade where you play as one of those physical bodies. Of course, this is only Newbold’s perspective, and one of many included in the film. There are some surprising revelations, and aspersions cast on members of the Bolivian government — and what they may or may not know about drug trafficking. Credit should be given to Ubi for not interfering, because Offland and the rest of the documentary team were obviously given complete control with Wildlands, and are aware that the film they ended up with is really a separate product to the game with the same name. Ubisoft have here bankrolled something to be proud of, no matter how the game is received.
Wildlands the documentary is informative, interesting, and treats a complex issue with some deserved subtlety, even if they didn’t have the time to get everything they wanted in the film (Young, talking about it in February, revealed they had still been filming in December). Video games are not always a medium known for those things. A multiplayer shooter may not be the best way to tackle such a sensitive and ongoing subject. But perhaps there’s a mini-game in Ghost Recon: Wildlands where you go into a school in London and get them to promise to not do lines of coke in the lavs in Fabric when they grow up.
There won’t be. That’s not enough fun. Although to be fair I would probably play the shit out of it.