'The Trade': TV Review | Sundance 2018

Think 'Traffic,' only current and real.

Showtime's new documentary series from the director of 'Cartel Land' is a thriller with almost distractingly good access to the frontlines of the opioid epidemic.

Director Matthew Heineman gets the sort of documentary access that is uncomfortable and impossible to look away from.

The experience of watching films like Cartel Land and City of Ghosts is to be simultaneously thinking, "I can't believe that person is doing that thing with the camera rolling!" and "How did the director get that person comfortable enough to do that thing with the camera rolling?"

It's an unnerving experience that's spread to TV-series length in Heineman's latest effort, Showtime's five-part docuseries The Trade, which screened its first two hours at the Sundance Film Festival and is set to premiere Feb. 2. An examination of America's opioid epidemic from production to distribution to consumption, The Trade is lacerating, heartbreaking and current. I also continue not to have a clue how Heineman gets the access he does, which is both an unmistakable asset and an unavoidable distraction for me.

Most viewers probably won't experience that second feeling, because Heineman's access is generally perceived to be in the interest of invisible immersion. The Trade is, for want of a better description, an unscripted version of Traffic, cutting between at least three narratives that through two hours are parallel but not yet intersecting, at least not literally. Symbolically, it's all part of a cycle. It's all in the game.

Down in Guerrero, Mexico, we meet Don Miguel, capo of a poppy empire. Business is booming, and so the competition is attempting to move into Don Miguel's territory. Violent attacks lead to violent retaliation at the same time as Don Miguel is looking for new and more refined ways to blast the U.S. border with drugs.

We pick up the war against heroin trafficking in Ohio, specifically Columbus, as we're told that Central Ohio is a gateway to distribution around the country, in addition to being tops in the country in deaths tied to opioids. The focus begins on officers within the Franklin County sheriff's department as they make routine busts, pursue bigger linkages in the supply chain and occasionally confront the epidemic's personal tragedies.

More of those personal stories are told first in Atlanta, where focus is on Skyler, whose parents are coping with having two sons hooked on drugs. While brother Avery is making strides, Skyler keeps repeating the same relapse cycles, pushing his parents to the brink with his mother insisting, "I will never give up on my child. As long as there's breath in his body, there's hope." The second introduces Brittany, also incapable of getting off the junk and also testing the patience of an endlessly patient parent. As Brittany explains, "I'm depressed because I used dope, so I continue to use dope. If that's not insanity, I don't know what is."

In each location, the common threads are drugs and desperation. In Mexico, we see villages fighting poverty and children who look to Don Miguel as a Santa Claus or Robin Hood figure, distributing toys and providing the only opportunities in the local economy. In Columbus, we see in-over-their-heads law enforcement figures facing an enemy that comes from all directions and that keeps offering newer and more desperate highs that people are willing to throw their lives away for. And in Atlanta and Akron, we see those insatiable appetites and we see love, frustrated and thwarted and disappointed love.

Again, the access is often unbelievable, or difficult to believe. Heineman or his team of DPs — Matt Porwoll, Peter Hutchens, Max Preiss, Ross McDonnell — are there as Avery and Brittany score, gather paraphernalia and shoot up. They're there as Columbus cops swarm what they hope is a drug den. They're out harvesting with the Mexican farmers and then with the drug mules as they secure pouches under cars and prepare to go through customs. They watch Don Miguel record threatening tapes to send to rival drug factions, and they sit there as masked sicarios talk about the men they've killed. The misery and tension and frustration are all visceral, but so too is my desire to yell at the screen, "Why are you doing illegal drugs when you know a camera is running?" "Why are you talking about the guy whose head you chopped off?" "Shouldn't you be asking for your face to be pixelated before you delve into your criminal conspiracy?" A surprising number of people busted by the cops gave clearances to have their faces shown, and why would one do that? Actually, one of the most powerful moments in the episodes I saw featured a group of children coming out of a slum, filling the frame with pixelated underage faces.

The Trade is, like Heineman's other documentaries, beautifully shot. The lush poppy fields, sparkling skylines and images of urban squalor and suburban sterility are lovingly captured, as are even conventional talking heads or intimate close-ups. It seems like such a small thing, but the amount of scene coverage the editors have to work with makes The Trade look like carefully composed narrative cinema.

That makes it easy to recommend The Trade to people who wouldn't watch a Frontline report on opioids. This isn't a documentary that has occasional exciting patches. It's a thriller that occasionally does the wonky work of a documentary. It's an episode of Narcos, only it's apparently real and chances are good you'll appreciate all of these glimpses into a clandestine and personal world we're not supposed to be seeing without getting hung up on how we came to be seeing it.

Director: Matthew Heineman
Producers: Myles Estey, Brent Kunkle, Damon Tabor
Executive producers: Pagan Harleman, Matthew Heineman
Editors: Matthew Hamachek, Daniel Koehler, Pax Wassermann
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Events Premiere)
Premieres: Friday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)