I left The Infiltrator wondering if there really is any great difference between actors and undercover agents. In either case, it’s all about putting on a performance and being convincing. The film dramatizes the true story of Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs special agent best known for infiltrating the money-laundering organization of drug lord Pablo Escobar and bringing down the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International in the 1980s; Mazur – who would go on to write the very autobiography Ellen Brown Furman would base the film’s screenplay on, and who serves as one of the film’s executive producers – wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this had he not been able to assume a role, to pretend to be someone he wasn’t.
Of course, for Mazur and those in his field, the stakes were then and remain now much higher than for the average actor. A bad performance can lead to not just the collapse of the entire operation but also to retaliatory loss of life – the agent’s, and quite possibly the family and friends of the agent. There are no second takes. If a line is flubbed, you must improvise to get the performance back on track. This takes skill and dedication, and a hell of a lot of guts. Many of us would love to have the opportunity to pretend for fun, but a precious few would be willing to pretend in very real, very dangerous circumstances, in the service of one’s country, without the lure of award statuettes made of gold.
There’s also, I suspect, a much higher cost to an undercover agent’s personal life. It can’t be easy, getting so many opportunities be anyone in the world and so few to be themselves. Spouses and children would have to be either the most patient and understanding people in the world or avoided altogether, no matter how much an agent may long for the comfort of family. They may also have no choice but to see things they may not want to see and do things they may not want to do. Imagine yourself having to play a mafioso in order to bring down a notorious boss. Would you be prepared to be unfaithful? To harm another person? To witness people being killed or tortured? To knowingly betray the criminals you befriended? Would you have the fortitude to pretend that none of this isn’t affecting you?
I am, of course, only speculating. However, the film does a very good job of inspiring one to speculate. In it, Mazur is played by with considerable depth by Bryan Cranston, who doubles as one of the producers. We see a man who’s undeniably good at what he does, and whose years of having to be other people have taken their toll. It’s all in his face – so worn, so grimaced by the emotions he was forced to keep hidden and the experiences he was forced to endure. We see him be the best he can possibly be when in the presence of his family, especially his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey), who understands the demands and sacrifices of his line of work but clearly doesn’t like it. You can’t blame her, not for a second. He did, after all, have the option to retire after a faulty wire tap burned a hole in his chest.
As he fakes his way through the drug underworld of Miami, which is where most shipments of cocaine entered the United States, Mazur slips and announces, in character, that he has gotten engaged. This necessitates the inclusion of another undercover agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). If you were Evelyn, his actual wife, would you be able to process this? Could you stand the indignity of your husband taking you to a nice restaurant on your anniversary, only for him to have to slip into character because one of his new leads just happened to be in the same restaurant on the same night? Would you be understanding if he had no choice but to refer to you not as his wife or even as his fiancée, but as his secretary? And could you watch as he, in character, makes a very unflattering scene with one of the restaurant’s waiters?
In the midst of all the unpleasant things Mazur has to say, do, and endure – including collecting aliases from tombstones, witnessing people get shot dead, forcibly observing a back-alley religious service in which a chicken is sacrificed, and opening a package containing a severed body part – Mazur, along with Ertz, must befriend one of Escobar’s associates, Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). He’s not a good man, and yet our own human nature forces us to pity him, for we know he’s going to be betrayed. Where would that leave his wife (Elena Anaya) and teenage daughter? For me, the compelling aspect of The Infiltrator isn’t the unfolding of a sting operation, but rather the emotional toll of playing everyone except yourself.