TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The war on Mexican drug cartels has been going on for so long and so violently, it's become a recurring feature of American popular culture, whether in TV shows like "The Bridge" and "Breaking Bad," or movies like Oliver Stone's "Savages." There are two new works on the subject - the documentary film "Cartel Land" by Matthew Heineman, and the thriller "The Cartel" by Don Winslow. Winslow is a private eye-turned crime novelist best-known for "The Power Of The Dog," and "Savages," which was adapted into Stone's movie. Our critic at large, John Powers, says that while both new works about the drug war are exciting, the strength of each isn't exactly what you might expect.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It wasn't so long ago that the line between fiction and non-fiction felt relatively clear. Back then documentaries went down like medicine - no fun to swallow, but good for you, while thrillers, say, were potato chips - easy to scarf, but of little sustenance. But recently, all this has changed. You can feel this shift in two acclaimed new works about the seemingly endless drug war in Mexico.
Matthew Heineman's film, "Cartel Land," is a close-in doc that plops us right down in the middle of that war. Working both sides of the fence dividing Mexico from the U.S., Heineman takes inside two vigilante groups that mistrust their respective governments and set out to do what they think the authorities are failing to do - fight the powerful Mexican cartels. In the Mexican state of Michoacan, our focus is Jose Mireles, an aging, quietly charismatic doctor who leads the Autodefensas. This group is trying to take back their towns from the hyper-violent Knights Templar cartel that's been bleeding people dry for years. Meanwhile, over in Arizona, along a barren stretch known as Cocaine Alley, a grizzled vet, Tim Foley, leads a group called Arizona Border Recon that says it's protecting the American border. Nicknamed Nailer, he feels that vigilantes get a bum rap.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CARTEL LAND")
TIM FOLEY: Technically, we're vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law, but the phrase vigilante, it's been given a bad name by the media.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: They are heavily armed and claim to be protecting our state from foreign threats and from our own government, but the state's growing militia movement is causing concern among law enforcement.
FOLEY: Back in the day, vigilante wasn't a bad thing. Say the bandits was riding into your town. Townspeople would all get together and, you know, defend their town. Now when people hear that phrase, they think of vigilante as somebody got white sheets over their head and they're going to hang [expletive] people from trees.
POWERS: "Cartel Land" is a beautifully-shot piece of derring-do. Embedding himself in the vigilante groups' reality, Heineman evokes the scared confusion of dusty Mexican towns and captures the dangerous desolation of the Arizona desert where you don't know who you might run into at night. Heineman is a braver man than I. And when his heroes suddenly get caught in a shoot-out, he doesn't cower. He starts filming action that could get him killed. He deliberately shapes his film to be as exciting as a thriller, and it is. But after a while, I started to suspect that he'd been seduced by his hard-earned access and terrific footage. I kept waiting for him to bring up the complicated questions about these vigilante groups. Are they actually doing valuable and sustainable work? Can you really trust people who start taking the law into their own hands? And when do vigilantes start turning into what they've been fighting? Heineman doesn't ask. And ultimately, "Cartel Land" winds up feeling more gripping than illuminating, a bit like a Hollywood movie.
In fact, I learned far more useful stuff about the Mexican drug war from an actual thriller, Don Winslow's new novel, "The Cartel," a pulp epic covering the last 10 years with its tens of thousands of murders we've read about in the headlines. The plot pivots on two men who want to kill one another. One is the courtly, old-school gang boss, Adan Barrera, based on the real-life El Chapo Guzman, who runs the world's biggest cartel. His mortal enemy is Art Keller, a driven wayward DEA agent who must decide just how dirty he'll get in order to bury Barrera. The two stalk each other for 600 pages teeming with characters - crooked Mexican bureaucrats and self-protective White House officials, cowed but honest Juarez journalists and heroic women doctors, 11-year-old hit men, brainy beauty queens and the new generation of cartel leaders whose paramilitary business model involves decapitation, flaying and burning folks alive. This is a world in which nobody ever feels safe or clean.
"The Cartel" tells its ghastly story with an enjoyable verve, yet I was even more impressed by the way Winslow uses his plot to offer a superb history of the cartels and those out to stop them. Steeped in reportage, the novel portrays events that actually happened, or thinly-veiled versions of events that happened, be it Grammy-winners singing for narcos or political leaders dying in suspicious plane crashes. And it possesses a virtue I associate with traditional documentaries - it explains things. I finished the book understanding why Juarez is so violent, why cartels murder so many innocent people, why both the American and Mexican governments favor some cartels over others, why the Mexican police and army are often on opposite sides, why Mexican citizens are terrified of both, and why the war on drugs is not just futile but morally compromised. It's here that fiction and documentary come together in a shared sense of, well, bleakness.
Heineman begins and ends "Cartel Land" with gorgeously eerie scenes of masked men cooking meth and casually explaining why the war on drugs is hopeless. Put simply, the American appetite for drugs is too big, and the Mexican people too poor not to go after the money that drugs bring. Somehow or other, the meth cooker says, everyone has gotten corrupt.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about the new documentary "Amy," which is about Amy Winehouse. Her album "Back To Black" with the hit "Rehab" made her famous, but because of her drug problems and erratic behavior, she became the punch line of late-night jokes and was stalked by paparazzi. The film tries to find the real Amy Winehouse through home movies, cell phone videos, studio and concert recordings, and interviews with the people who knew her best. I'll talk with the film's director and with her first manager.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REHAB")
AMY WINEHOUSE: (Singing) They tried to make me go to rehab. I said, no, no, no. Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.