At this point, there is a general consensus that the War on Drugs has been a failure.
The War on Drugs filled our prisons, destroyed families, ruined neighborhoods, funded the Taliban, and turned northern Mexico into a war zone.
The criminalization of hard drugs was doomed to failure. The truth has always been clear: demand + money = supply. There is no law that can stop the supply. When you imprison or kill the supplier, there will always be a brave, greedy man to take his place.
“The French Connection” is not a message movie. But it captures the fundamentally absurd spirit of the War on Drugs. It reminded me of “Platoon.” Both films follow the day to day struggle of war. And they expose the futility of the war itself.
The film’s plot is simple: a trio of Frenchmen have come to New York City with $32 million worth of pure heroin. They have a buyer. They just have to make the deal without the NARCs getting wise.
One NARC has gotten wise. City Narcotics Detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) has a hunch that a big drug deal is about to go down.
Popeye Doyle and his loyal partner Cloudy (Roy Scheider) devote themselves to the task of tracking their suspects and building a case against them.
Filmmaker William Friedkin never asks us to like Popeye or Cloudy. But he clearly understands his anti-heroes because Friedkin directs the movie with the same blind confidence and single-mindedness.
There are mundane scenes of Popeye and Cloudy staying up all night in a car waiting for the Frenchmen to make a move. And there’s a scene where Popeye stands outside for an hour in the December cold just watching his suspects eat a fine meal.
And, darn it, Friedkin is correct. These scenes are not boring. They build believability and tension. I don’t like action flicks and I don’t like “Law and Order.” But “The French Connection” is so perfectly crafted that it won me over.
I respect Friedkin’s unusual decision to provide zero background on the characters. Do they have families? Do they have hobbies? How did Popeye become an angry racist jerk? We don’t know. The case is all that matters.
40-year old Gene Hackman won an Oscar and became a Hollywood legend playing Popeye. There is nothing likable about him. He destroys private property, endangers civilians and kills people without a second thought. Popeye doesn’t even think about whether his suspects are wrong or he is right; he is driven by mindless mania in his pursuit of the big drug bust.
Popeye is a metaphor for the War on Drugs itself. America fought the war without even thinking about whether victory was worth the cost.
“The French Connection” is a perfectly crafted film. And it proves that thinking people knew that the War on Drugs was unwinnable from the very start. In June 1971, President Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” In October 1971, “The French Connection” exposed the absurdity of the war.
I don’t know what the solution is. But decriminalizing all drugs is a start.