American Dope: Cold War, Heroin Heat

“Endearing” might seem like a strange descriptor for a non-fiction film about the sinister role the United States government and entangled foreign powers played in the opioid crises of the 20th century.

Despite its deadly severe tone and subject matter, however, Cold War, Heroin Heat somehow turns out to be precisely that.

The ramshackle hour-long documentary, seemingly held together with spit and chewing gum by writer/producer/director/editor Al Profit (who also appears on-camera in a hosting role throughout), is as scrappy and energetic a “hidden history” lesson as can be. It’s impressive for both its chutzpah and for the breakneck pace at which it proceeds through decades of history and dozens of interrelated conspiracies without ever stopping to take a breath.

“…attempts to track the myriad connections between America’s crusade to stomp out Communism and the flow of heroin into U.S. cities…”

Profit, the nom de plume of filmmaker Alan Bradley, has a handful of organized crime docs under his belt, his filmography to date fixated on subjects such as the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and the various strains of corruption and criminality plaguing his hometown of Detroit. While Cold War, Heroin Heat does necessarily touch on those subjects along the way, with this film, Profit widens his scope considerably. Here, he attempts to track the myriad connections between America’s crusade to stomp out Communism abroad and the flow of heroin into U.S. cities, which encompasses a far-flung conglomeration of international players and criminal interests. Audiences are likely to recall aspects of that story that were dramatized in favorite movies such as American Gangster and The French Connection, but as Cold War, Heroin Heat tells it, the events depicted in those films are just the tip of a rotten iceberg that spans more than a century of time and a multitude of competing factions.

It’s a huge-scale head-spinner of a tale overall, and Profit certainly keeps interest piqued with his rapid-fire, “good luck keeping up” approach – even though he understandably lacks the credentials, the budget, or the access to fully do it justice. Dramatically lit in front of an American flag backdrop for his to-camera narration, the filmmaker may at times look to viewers like a run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, but he’s mostly successful in not stretching credibility too far or lapsing into off-putting political harangues. He proves himself both an effective curator of archival materials and a captivating tour guide to a seedy world of ex-Nazis, American and European mobsters, Southeast Asian revolutionaries, and – perhaps most disturbingly – the shadowy C.I.A. puppet masters who secretly endeavor to control it all.

What Cold War, Heroin Heat lacks in polish – and, boy, does it lack polish, riddled with typos in its on-screen titles, haphazardly cut-off soundtrack cues, and other such minor gaffes – it makes up for by never, ever being boring. The material presented here could easily fill an entire season of a TV docuseries, and there’s something oddly satisfying in following along as Profit scrambles to connect all the dots. Not only that, but running things together the way the film does end up being a forceful way of encouraging viewers to consider all of this information in its entirety – the “big picture” is that much easier to see when all of the convoluted saga’s scattered pieces are compiled in such a compact package.

“…a gateway drug into the secret history of corrupt foreign policy and the filthiest of filthy lucre…”

Of course, a film like this isn’t intended to be the last word on such a complex subject. The limited assortment of talking heads that Profit rounds up for support – the most interesting of which is a retired undercover DEA agent who claims that government higher-ups prevented him from making what could have been the drug bust of the century – only cursorily help make his case. 

But nevertheless, there’s value in an indie documentary like this one, even in just its willingness to tackle ideas that more “reputable” outlets generally steer clear of. Similar to something like, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, one needn’t necessarily believe every detail of Profit’s film to be inspired to take a more critical look into the issues he’s exploring.

With that in mind, consider Cold Way, Heroin Heat something like a gateway drug into the secret history of corrupt foreign policy and the filthiest of filthy lucre – once you’ve gotten a little taste, you can’t help but want a bit more.

Cold War, Heroin Heat (2018) Written and directed by Al Profit. Featuring Al Profit, Michael Levine, Douglas Valentine, James Buccellato

6.5 out of 10

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