Traffic (2000)

Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) and Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) are menaced by two thugs (Joe Yenque, Emilio Rivera) in a tense scene. "Traffic."

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan; based upon the miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore. Music by Cliff Martinez. Photographed by Peter Andrews [Steven Soderbergh]. Edited by Stephen Mirrione. Production designed by Philip Messina. Starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, D.W. Moffett, Jacob Vargas, Miguel Ferrer, Erika Christensen, Steven Bauer, Clifton Collins Jr., Topher Grace.

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is a sprawling and ambitious work that examines the drug trade with a scope that does honor to the word “epic.” But it’s emotional temperature is low, and I think that is because it sees its characters more as pawns and less as characters. Make no mistake, this is a smart and absorbing film from one of our smartest and most interesting filmmakers, but it is almost exclusively about ideas and not really about people—everyone on display is selected primarily for the symbolic function they serve in a hierarchy, and less for their individual weight. The story calls for focus on Mexican and American cops, a drug kingpin and his oblivious trophy wife, an addicted teenager and a politician who intends to crack down on drugs. So that’s what we get. But in a way, that’s almost all that we get, because Traffic is in such a hurry to arrive at a broad social point that its dramatic content feels like an afterthought. A well-made afterthought, but…still.

Many have described the film as a collection of stories that are only tangentially related. Not true. In actuality, the film intertwines three subplots that hold fairly tight, while another story is laid on top as a sort of counterpoint. In the main, three-pronged narrative, two decent Mexican cops (Benicio Del Toro, Jacob Vargas) fall under the sway of a general with big-time plans to take down the head of a drug cartel, while two DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán) try to knock out that same cartel’s San Diego-based distributor. The subsequent arrest, however, kicks over a hornet’s nest of debt and potential violence for the dug kingpin’s wife (Catherine Zeta Jones), who had no idea where her husband’s money came from and now must become ruthless in order to protect her way of life. The other story involves a judge (Michael Douglas) who is nominated to be the United States’ drug czar, and ambitiously plans to stomp out narcotics, not realizing that his own daughter (Erica Christensen) is a user who is spiraling into greater addiction. That last twist, by the way, is awfully convenient, but for the purposes of the story, we won’t quibble.

If this sounds like a lot of material for a 140-minute film, you may not be surprised at all to learn that Traffic was adapted from a 1989 BBC miniseries (Traffik), which benefitted from a longer running time to allow these stories to sink in. Soderbergh (who also photographed under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) does a commendable job of toggling between the stories, using color filters and saturation levels to differentiate between the narratives and make the geography clear. But at the end of the day, each story (with one exception) feels rushed, and that is because we’re getting the basic plot points, and not enough of the in-between. There’s just not enough time.

The movie is far from a failure—it’s way too confident for that. Almost knowingly, the film starts and finishes with its strongest material, the Mexican story (that’s the exception), which is anchored by Javier Rodriguez (Del Toro), who has sad eyes that only get sadder as the movie progresses. As the movie opens, they take down an SUV crammed with cocaine, before their bust is hijacked by General Arturo Salazar (Thomas Milian), a grandfatherly character who soon enlists the men’s help in using hardball drug-enforcement tactics that aren’t strictly legal: kidnapping, torture, threats. This (and the ultimate coercion of a cartel assassin) are met with great success, until Javier begins to secretly suspect that Salazar is in league with a different drug cartel, and simply plans to cripple one while propping up another.

The Mexico plot crosses paths with the material in San Diego several times, and, eventually, becomes a heavy factor in what happens there. The DEA agents are embroiled in their own drama involving the messy takedown of a storage facility owner (Miguel Ferrer) with a heavy line in narcotics. His arrest leads to the fingering of a rich entrepreneur (Steven Bauer, whose web of “legitimate businesses” turns out to be a house of cards, much to the horror of his wife. While she processes the notion that everything she knew about her husband is a lie, lowlifes come around demanding money she doesn’t have access to, leading her to hire an assassin to do away with the federal witness. Meanwhile, her husband’s dirty lawyer (Dennis Quaid) operates, slickly, in the shadows.

All of this is pretty nicely cohesive, but the film keeps going by adding another layer of material: the story of the judge with an ironic family problem. Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is thrust into the job of drug czar, and he shares the usual platitudes and phony smiles with his boss (Albert Finney) and his predecessor (James Brolin). But while he jump starts his career, his family is neglected: his daughter Caroline hangs out with prep school lowlifes who are making the jump from snorting cocaine to freebasing, and his former-hippie wife (Amy Irving) covers up Caroline’s problems until they are acute. Eventually, Caroline runs away and sells her own body for drugs, in scenes that are–frustratingly–not as convincing as they should be.

If I were to rank the different stories in Traffic, I would probably call the drug czar subplot the least of them, because it feels vaguely phony, and is the most prone to making inappropriate speeches (one is delivered by an irritatingly mannered Topher Grace, who almost gets away with it because his character has already been established as an insufferable know-it-all snot). The Douglas subplot has its powerful moments (like when he discovers his daughter, serenely lying in a stranger’s bed, and she coos “Hi, daddy”) but it’s a long road to get there, and features a scene of Douglas breaking down a door in pursuit of his little girl, which is one scene too many for this ostensibly realistic motion picture. Furthermore, the character of Caroline, despite being acted strongly by Christensen, is weakened by the screenplay’s time-saving device of introducing her while she has already experimented with cocaine—the film skips over her introduction to drugs, which is a missed dramatic opportunity, and renders her passive and unrelatable.

The Zeta Jones subplot (and the accompanying DEA material) also has its failings, but they are less severe: mainly, Zeta Jones’ character is a little ill-defined. She doesn’t have enough time to react to the upheaval in her life before her children are being threatened and she is forced to respond. We aren’t able to quite chart her course from shallow housewife to cold Mama bear who is willing to order hits on key witnesses. But that is redeemed in the slightly chilling climax where she, in desperation, visits a Mexican drug lord and sells him the key to getting product past border searches, and we finally see the line she won’t cross when she’s offered a good faith line of coke: “I’m six months pregnant, I won’t do it.” The DEA subplot benefits greatly from the talent of Ferrer and Cheadle: the former has enough gravity that he actually sells the speeches he makes about the drug war’s pointlessness, while Cheadle has enough world weary humor (“Are we on Larry King?”) that he’s able to undercut and process the points made at the same time.

The film thrives most significantly in the Mexico sequences, not just because of Del Toro’s gripping performance, but also it is when Soderbergh’s camera is most alive. In the Mexico scenes, the film is coated with a grainy, high-contrast appearance that looks like film left out in the desert, giving the impoverished landscape a haunting quality, and bringing a heightened reality to the proceedings. These sequences also are the least inclined to make speeches or over-explain. In fact, it’s here that one or two of the plot twists are intentionally confusing, which is appropriate for the subplot that is most frankly about corruption. Most interestingly, that sense of sophistication seems to follow the Del Toro character around: when he visits San Diego (during one of several scenes that juxtapose unrelated characters on the same street), he goes into a gay bar as part of a plot to kidnap the assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr.), and his strategy is not for a second explained, simply observed.

As busy as the film sometimes is, it does occasionally find time for scenes that have a quiet insight—during one scene, Caroline and her friends do hit after hit and sink into a morass of “deep” socio-psychoanalysis that the film humorously fades into and out of, because of course the conversation is nothing but high-school level BS. There are other moments, too, like when Caroline does her first hit of crack, and a single tear drips down her cheek—a moment that is matched later when Helena cries and faces the possibility of destitution. One of the movie’s buried themes is its observation of how addiction is more than a matter of illegal substances: Cheadle’s partner Ray (Guzman) is a chain-smoker, and Helena fears losing the “high” of her opulent lifestyle, while Robert’s need for alcohol is present in every scene he has, even when he’s berating his daughter.

Traffic’s ultimate message is that the drug war is pointless: it is a business that exists because of high demand, and will continue to exist no matter what the United States (or any other country) tries to do. The most nihilistic role in the story is served by Cheadle’s DEA agent, who seems destined to repeat the same behavior over and over again, with no results, and a mounting death toll (in his exit from the picture, he has a grin on his face, which, in context of everything we’ve just seen, is almost disturbing). It is no coincidence that the characters who end the film most positively are the ones who have willfully escaped from the problem, rather than solving it. “If there is a war on drugs,” says Douglas in one his most powerful moments in the film, “then many of our own family members are the enemy. I don’t know how you wage a war on your own family.” This bold statement costs him his political career and yet reclaims his soul, which is a telling dichotomy.

All of these thoughts are contained in Traffic, yet I cannot help shake the feeling that the film is more exercise than masterpiece. In many ways, the film feels like an illustration of statistics with colorful scenarios rather than drama, and that is probably because the structure is so neatly labeled: the film’s purpose is to examine different layers of drug warfare, and so it contrives characters who fulfill those requirements. The film gets dangerously close to simplifying a complex issue. In the end, it doesn’t quite, although it does make simple points, which is not quite as problematic. The real issue here is that each one of these stories could have earned a full movie in and of itself—by attempting to make Traffic such one-stop-shopping, the filmmakers effectively remove the juicier parts of the story and give us a more clinical (and slightly less compelling) approach.

Nevertheless, Traffic remains an effective and triumphant piece of work for director Steven Soderbergh, who, ever since his debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape, has become one of the most fascinating moonlighters in Hollywood. By day, he makes offbeat studio pieces like the Oceans movies, Erin Brockovich (which was released the same year as Traffic), The Informant, and the just-released Contagion. Then he makes weird films like Bubble, Shizopolis, his remake of Solaris, and, most puzzlingly, his two-part, five-hour biography of Che Gueverra. Weird, but, beguiling, all the same. Soderbergh is the kind of artists who makes big-budget pictures exactly the way he wants to make them, and then uses that clout to make the deeply personal projects that no one else wants to touch. He’s good. Very good.

Whether he is at his best in Traffic is an interesting question. I think he is, and he earned his best director win that year (although Ang Lee’s work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a close second). Soderbergh is, above all, a socially-minded and savvy filmmaker, and, despite its flaws, it is clear he poured his heart into Traffic, and means every point, as clunky as some of them are made. And they have held up. Nowadays, the drug war is not a topic that gets on the news often anymore, and it is melancholy fact that one year after Traffic, the national consciousness was focused on an entirely different issue. “Your life’s work is pointless,” Cheadle’s character is told in one scene, and it’s a difficult argument to refute, but it’s also an argument no one is interested in having anymore, thanks to the war on terror. Come to think of it, Traffic could even be remade entirely, today, to focus on the war on terror. We could even keep that line.

GRADE: B+

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