2 hours 27 minutes
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on Traffik created by Simon Moore for Channel 4 Television (Britain)
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews
Edited by Stephen Mirrione
Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford
Released by USA Films
Starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Bauer, Erika Christensen, Clifton Collins Jr., Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Tomas Milian, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Benjamin Bratt, Jacob Vargas and Albert Finney
Reviewed by Anthony Vincent Rainone
Steven Soderbergh’s hand-held camera work in Traffic takes the viewer directly into the maelstrom that is America’s battle with drugs. His documentary-style look is visceral, realistic and virtually truthful. It leaves the viewer exasperated about the official approach to “the war on drugs,” but not completely disillusioned. This is not a cynical film. Soderbergh seems to be saying drug smuggling and street dealing is not exclusively a criminal problem. It is a healthcare issue. It is also an issue of human frailty.
Traffic consists of four stories, or threads that often run parallel, sometimes diverge and sometimes meet. Its damn near impossible to pick out the dominant one. They are all compelling. The first thread takes place in Mexico, where everything is shot in a washed out yellow-orange hue, giving the viewer a heightened sense of the sun and heat. It is jarring, making the terrain seem alien and unwelcome. When Javier Rodriguez (played by Benicio Del Toro), a resourceful Tijuana cop, spits on the ground, you can feel the sun-baked dryness all around him. Del Toro plays Rodriguez close to the vest, leaving the viewer impressed with the boldness of his decisions throughout the film. He is loyal to a fault, but his are the right decisions and he is a survivor. Like many of the characters, he undergoes a metamorphosis, but his translates into bettering the lives of others, not just saving his own ass.
The second thread consists of DEA agents Montel Gordon ( Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) trying to bring down Carlos Ayala (Stephen Bauer), a wealthy San Diego drug smuggler. Their initial target is Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a low-level functionary of Ayala. Sonderbergh chose to shoot the San Diego scenes with full color stock. Cheadle and Guzman play the government agents with humor. They lighten an otherwise bleak dominant undertone. Gordon and Castro get Ruiz to flip on Ayala, but it ultimately won’t matter. You don’t need large amounts of intelligence to know that Ruiz is a goner. Sonderbergh is spot on with his depictions of the violence drug gangs wage against each other (and very rarely against civilians). The torture of a drug assassin by the Mexican army is gruesome, but falls short of what they actually do in real life. DEA agent Gordon toils as hard as Rodriguez in Mexico and they both suffer similar loses. Theirs is a corollary relationship. These men make crap salaries and face enormous dangers, Rodriguez perhaps more so, since his superiors are all corrupt. Ruiz ridicules Gordon as engaging in a futile process. Gordon doesn’t answer in words, rather it’s his eyes, the expression of his face, and later on in the movie his smile, that says there is a reason he perseveres and it’s a damn good one. He knows that he can’t control the big picture, but it’s the little things he can do that matter. He does the little things well.
This second thread winds into the third involving Ayala’s arrest and prosecution and the effect it has on his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who gets her jones by being rich and isn’t about to let anyone, DEA included, keep her from her wealthy lifestyle. Helena has a lot at stake in seeing her husband found innocent, and it all revolves around her country club membership, her friends, the boards she sits on and her gorgeous house. Her transformation is more subtle. She learns who her husband really is, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. The man is a major bread winner. Her turn towards the dark side is really a redirecting of a ruthless personality. She is a West coast Lady MacBeth. She will turn to anyone, including a corrupt lawyer (Dennis Quaid) for help, then just as quickly turn against them.
The fourth thread follows the path of Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio Supreme Court Judge who is appointed the new drug czar in Washington. His is a lesson in futility and the reason why this country is “losing the war on drugs.” Wakefield quickly realizes that Washington is full of men and women with personal agendas, and none of those agendas really take into account helping the people addicted. He likens Washington personalities to Calcutta beggars, only the Washingtonians are in $1500 suits and “they don’t say please or thank you.” A chilling scene occurs in a plane ride home, when Wakefield asks his staff to think “out of the box.” They all sit quiet, staring at each other like hapless subway riders going to work. The coffee hasn’t kicked in and the brain cells aren’t firing. Several of the scenes with Wakefield are shot in a cool blue, a visual code for officials who don’t have any emotional connection to what is going on. Wakefield would probably become just like them, if it weren’t for his daughter’s addiction.
Erika Christensen plays Caroline Wakefield, and her performance is one of the strongest supporting roles in the film. Caroline Wakefield is an A student who has typical teen angst and is introduced to drugs by her prep school boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). Her reaction to free-basing is nothing short of pure exhilaration. She actually gets tears of joy and her cheeks turn rosy. It’s orgasmic. Her addiction and descent is nothing short of pure hell. She ends up letting a small-time drug dealer in a ghetto in Cincinnati screw her in order to feed her habit. Her transformation is probably the most glossed-over element to the film. Soderbergh leaves out the harrowing experience of kicking, probably because the film is long enough already. But the physical and emotional pain is given scant attention. You want to turn someone off to drugs: let them see an addict in withdrawal.
So what are some of the messages in Traffic? Soderbergh doesn’t argue that drugs are good, but he doesn’t necessarily see the drug smugglers, dealers and addicts as the real problem. Those people are mainly perpetuating violence against themselves for a piece of the action and enormous profit. There is an economic lure to drug dealing that is hard to resist. Seth says to Wakefield at one point that perhaps some people have it figured out wrong. Why go to law school, when you can make $500 selling drugs in 2 hours and have the rest of the day to yourself? Hard to argue with this. The victims, the drug users like Caroline Wakefield, are those who can’t temper daily existence without stimulants. But this may be everybody in our damn society. Robert Wakefield tells his wife that he needs a drink at night to “take the edge off,” or otherwise he would “die of boredom.” Barbara Wakefield (Amy Irving) says that she “experimented” with drugs in college. Ray Castro chain smokes in his surveillance van. Helena Ayala regales her lunch pals with the desire to start drinking wine as soon as her obstetrician allows her. The problem may be within our psyches and not with corrupt Mexican officials or greedy American smugglers. Wakefield starts to realize this. A poignant moment has him saying aloud “how do you wage war against your family?” The resources of drug smugglers are enormous and stopping the flow of drugs is damn near impossible, and may always be impossible. Newer technologies are allowing smugglers to get through undetected, such as black cocaine, which has no odor. But Soderbergh is saying it’s not hopeless. Every thread in Traffic has positive twists. The final shot of the film is a “glass half-empty or half-full” image. Will the children grow up drug free, or be future players and users in the game?
Traffic has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has also been nominated for an Edgar for Best Picture.
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