Traffic (2000)

D: Steven Soderbergh
S: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro

Epic-scale multiple-character drama based on the British TV series following disparate but interrelated stories of people at different levels in the drug trade. One story strand concerns the appointment of Judge Michael Douglas as head of the U.S. anti-drug commission. He quickly finds his war on drugs to be more personally challenging than he had imagined. A second story thread has Mexican law enforcer Benicio Del Toro drifting into the sphere of influence of a sinister Mexican general whose methods of controlling the traffic extend to kidnapping and torture of underworld figures. Del Toro must evaluate the morals and ethics of his situation and decide what route to take as an officer of the law in a corrupt system. There are two other narrative thrusts, both more closely linked than the previous two. In one of them, well-to-do Catherine Zeta-Jones discovers husband Steven Bauer is a high-level importer only when he is arrested and their home and belongings are threatened. She is advised by friend and associate Dennis Quaid, whose motives may be suspect. The flip side of this tale is that of the key witness against Bauer, who has been apprehended by cops Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, but is unrepentant about his profession and dismissive of the State's ability to control it (Miguel Ferrer).

Stylistically consistent with his recent successes including The Limey and Erin Brockovich, Traffic is directed with authority and evident ease in its logistical co-ordination by Steven Soderbergh. Benefiting from stylish cinematography and editing, the film has a look, pace, and rhythm which closely resembles its predecessors yet which seem to have been taken to the next level in scale. Traffic is self-evidently a more grandiose story than those told in the previous films, and the film also has a role to play as a political polemic in the absence of a realpolitik response to the problems it portrays from the American government.

Working from a screenplay written by Stephen Gagan (from Simon Moore's original teleplay), Soderbergh controls the various narrative strands and holds the core of the film together without losing hold over the audience at any time. It is an anti-drug trope, yes, but it is also clever enough to suggest that the war on drugs has been misdirected and recourses misapplied in fighting it without either submitting to despair or resting on its laurels in self-congratulation. These themes are broad and encompass a range of illustrative characters and events between which Soderbergh cross-cuts and juxtaposes as appropriate. Correlations between situations and characters are carefully underlined even if and when the stories do not tie in to one another directly. All of the events on screen share basic common features and the characters all face a set of questions relating to one or two central precepts, yet every narrative thread seems to be a fully realised tale in its own right. The individual stories seem to proceed at their own pace, yet the stakes in each case increase as the film's overall narrative develops. This augments the overall sense of tension and risk.

Each character meanwhile follows a believable story arc which encompasses a range of changes in response to the situation they find themselves in. It has all been carefully worked out and is convincingly played, making it dynamic and dramatic all the way. No character is untouched by their experiences, and without seeming the pat 'disaster movie' variety of multi-character epic, the film does follow a number of major personalities with more or less equal weight. Equally important of course is the creation of the environments in which each of these people face their individual challenges. With the aid of good production design and again clever cinematography, the director ensures the audience understands and engages with the world of the film on more than just a verbal level. It is entirely to Soderbergh's credit that he manages to balance all of these basic elements of cinematic storytelling and still finds time to indulge in visual flourishes such as the use of colour-draining and augmenting filters, a variety of camera styles, and quite showy editing, all of which draw attention to the presence of the film maker.

Traffic is an interesting companion piece to the recent Requiem for a Dream, not least of all in the fact that one of its major sub-plots echoes one of the central stories in Aronofsky's picture. Erika Christensen is introduced early on as a teenage drug user from a wealthy background who seems to have no real 'reason' for doing drugs other than boredom and hedonism. A similar story emerged from Jennifer Connelly's character in Requiem. The reason this is interesting is that comparing the representations illustrates the relative lack of depth in Traffic on a personal level. It works primarily as a polemical action thriller, painting its portrait of individuals and society in broad strokes. It is very effective on this level, and has all the makings of a classic Hollywood issue movie. Yet it never plumbs the depths of euphoria and degradation explored in Aronofsky's film, especially in terms of the fate of this particular character. Though it pushes the envelope relatively far in terms of a mainstream representation, it plays it safe enough to avoid being genuinely unpleasant or truly disturbing. In this sense, it never takes hold on an emotional level. It remains mostly rhetoric.

As such, Traffic is ultimately a victim of its own hype. It is tremendously well made, very well acted, consistently gripping, and it leaves an impression on the mind. Yet it glides by so smoothly (despite the appearance of roughness) that it can be filed away all too easily and dismissed as an after-school special on a grand scale. The film is still well worth seeing, and it if provokes debate then all the better. The trouble is that it may not, and doesn't necessarily invite it quite so readily as you might think. Traffic is not really saying anything new, nor does it really offer much of a challenge to the audience on the level of their own response to what they are seeing. It is quite possible to sit back and enjoy this movie, and one senses that most viewers will. The question is what purpose does it serve given the scale and seriousness of the problem it portrays? Is the 'war on drugs' an issue or a theme? Is Traffic a means, an end, or just so much cinematic musing? Does this matter to you? Take a look and find out for yourself.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.