To Catch a Smuggler: JFK Airport – ‘Courier to Kingpin’: Review


To Catch a Smuggler

1st February, 9PM, National Geographic

Fortunately a world away from the Brass Eye-esque To Catch a Predator, To Catch a Smuggler is a fascinating new documentary series from National Geographic, following agents from the Department of Homeland Security as they attempt to stop drugs and other illegal goods from coming into the USA.

Honestly, I was expecting very little. New documentaries from American educational digital channels are usually… well, awful. The bar for what can be classified as ‘factual entertainment’ seems to have been lowered as far as it can go in recent years. You just need to look at TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo to see what I mean. A programme about a redneck kid drinking Red Bull and confirming every stereotype about the state of Georgia does not count as a documentary. ‘TLC’ stands for ‘The Learning Channel’, by the way. Really, you’d be forgiven for being sceptical of
anything coming out of America that claims to be ‘factual’.

Fortunately, To Catch a Smuggler is an island of respite in a sea of filth. Simply, it’s one of the most interesting programmes I’ve seen in a while, purely because of the lengths the producers have gone to to get access. America is notoriously secretive about their security services, and what To Catch a Smuggler provides is unprecedented access behind the scenes of America’s front-line of defence against smugglers. It’s a huge feat, and it’s paid off.

For anyone who’s had the fortune to go to America, you’ll know how terrifying the officers in the airport are. Gruff, no-nonsense guys. The gun strapped to their waist adds to the whole image too. It’s interesting to see them when they’re not dealing with the public – they’re amiable, intelligent guys. Their humanity really comes through when they’re worrying about the fate of a 15 year old Dominican boy they suspect of smuggling drugs. It’s even more interesting to see them switch – when they know they’ve got a smuggler, when they’re closing in, and when they’re questioning him, having to confront him with the fact that he’s looking down the barrel of a 10-year prison sentence,
and turn back into those hard-as-nails guys you see swaggering round the terminal.

It has its tense moments, but unlike every other documentary at the moment, it doesn’t rely on shaky camerawork or atmospheric music. The events are allowed to speak for themselves. Watching as the police close in on a smuggler is tense enough already – it doesn’t need a soundtrack behind it to create an atmosphere.

All in all, it’s an excellent programme. Don’t get the impression that it’s only watchable when compared to the other crap they show on Nat Geo (American Gypsies, anyone?) – it stands up great on its own. It’s just an insight into the work of people that we don’t know a lot about, and it’s free of all the annoying documentary tropes that might otherwise be off-putting.