Through the 90s, Steven Soderbergh was one of the most interesting filmmakers to follow. In 1989, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (his debut) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and went on to become a surprisingly potent box-office hit which put Miramax on the map and nearly single-handedly kicked off the independent cinema craze. Soderbergh followed up with more difficult, obscure art-house films such as “Kafka” and “Schizopolis” which were interesting but failed to appeal to many. Slowly but surely, Soderbergh faded into critically acclaimed irrelevance, making good movies nobody wants to see. But then, in 1998, he changed his career path drastically, opting to helm “Out Of Sight”, a more commercial studio picture starring George Clooney. The movie wasn’t the big hit it deserved to be, but it was still a good move. In some ways, that film and its follow-up (the Terrence Stamp vehicle “The Limey”) are conventional genre offerings, crime tales made of revenge, sex and double-crossings, yet Soderbergh experimented with storytelling and visual style to make them into quite unique pictures. Ditto for “Erin Brockovich”, his chick-lawyer-vs-big-bad-business flick, a potential dud that turned out to be one of the best crafted films of the year…
That is, until his very own “Traffic”, a film even more skilfully made but also one with a most interesting subject: the so-called war on drugs. What we learn is that, as we suspected, this is a war that can’t be won. First off, as long as there is demand, there will always be people to provide illegal drugs. Arrest one drug dealer, ten others will appear the same day. Then, if you decide to prosecute the junkies, you’re not helping anybody. You’re putting somebody with what is really a health issue with real criminals, in a place where there’s even more dope running around. The film follows a wide gallery of characters placed at different levels of the trafficking, as well as the officials and agents who fight mostly in vain to stop them.
There’s Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a Ohio judge newly appointed by the President to be the next US drug czar, the one who orients the policies and actions concerning the issue. There’s still a week before the official press conference, and Wakefield takes this time to meet with all the people he’ll have to work with, gathering different viewpoints and ideas. But what will really have an impact on his perspective is to discover that his pretty, grade A student daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is doing more and more drugs and getting quite hooked on freebase. We see through the scenes around her and her prep school friends that you don’t have to be poor and uneducated to lose yourself to drugs. These kids have education and money, but it doesn’t save them from being tempted by drugs. In fact, it makes it easier for them to be discreet, “proper” junkies. Yet Caroline doesn’t have it easy, and she soon finds himself leaving home and following some of the traces of Jennifer Connelly’s “Requiem For A Dream” character.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, a pair of DEA agents played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman bust a drug trafficker and convince him to take a plea bargain and testify against his boss, a seemingly respectable Latin American business man (Steven Bauer) who actually makes his money smuggling illegal drugs into the country. This comes as a surprise to his 6 month pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who finds herself in a position where her comfy lifestyle might be taken away from her… unless she does something about it. Finally, in Mexico, we follow Tijuana cop Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), who sees more than his share of suspicious stuff around him, where even some of his colleagues are on the drug lords’ payroll. But that’s not for him. He might make only a miserable salary for putting himself in the line of fire every day, but he feels he’s doing something right, no matter how little impact it might have in the big picture. So he keeps at it, and finds himself in a delicate situation where he must juggle with a military general with a hidden agenda, opposing drug cartels and the DEA.
Phew! That’s a lot of plot, and there’s still a lot more I didn’t write about. “Traffic” is a very complex, rich picture which attempts to give an overview of the whole drug thing from many different angles. This could quickly become a mess, but screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (loosely adapting a 1989 British miniseries) and director Soderbergh do an amazing job in alternating locales and storylines without losing their focus. The film is interesting notably in the way it shows you how drugs go from modest crops down south to the hands of junkies. A lot of dope is stopped at the USA-Mexico border, but more than enough comes through to make up for the losses. Then there’s the sad fact that it’s easier for American teenagers to buy cocaine than to buy beer.
Soderbergh truly outdoes himself behind the camera. Like Scorsese with “Goodfellas”, he makes a film that is both thought-provoking and dynamic. He shows us how the war on drugs ends up being most profitable for drug dealers, while simple users are thrown in jail, but he does so without preaching, without going for easy answers. He doesn’t tell us drugs are okay and they should be legalized, but he doesn’t go for just say no, tolerance zero either. At the same time, the film is exciting and involving. I enjoyed a lot the scenes between Caroline, her boyfriend Seth (played by “That 70s Show”‘s Topher Grace, who’s surprisingly good) and their friends. A lot of their dialogue is just teen angst and pot talk, but it still rings true and some of what is said makes sense, like Seth’s theory about why so many Blacks deal drugs. Michael Douglas is good to, as we watch him going from the typical politician and father who just rehashes tired formulas to a man who realizes that things are more complicated than “drugs are bad, m’kay”.
The thread following the DEA agents is mostly enjoyable for the wonderful pairing of Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle, two very cool character actors who are great together doing the buddy cops thing. Yet there’s no doubt that the film is at its best during the storyline revolving around Benicio Del Toro’s Mexican cop. It’s almost all in Spanish in subtitles, but it’s still completely engrossing, full of suspense and danger. Del Toro’s performance is a real stand-out. Watch him being everything to everyone, playing every angle, working hard so neither side of the drug war can pin him down as being on the opposite side. Something else that makes these scenes special is the very unusual look of them. Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer (under the credited name Peter Andrews), gives a completely different look to each of the three main locales. The scenes on the East Coast have sort of a faded blue look, while the ones in California are shot very bright, very sunny, very “movie-movie”. And then there’s the Mexico scenes, all shot in yellowy, grainy film stock, like old photographs, or like heat would look if you could see it. It gives this part of the movie a very interesting feel, like you’re really in Tijuana, the sun beating on you.
The weakest part of the film has got to be some of the thing with Catherine Zeta-Jones. She herself is pretty good (this even got her a Golden Globe nomination), and for quite a while, it’s interesting to watch her struggle between lawyers, associates of her husband (including a particularly hypocritical one played by Dennis Quaid) and opportunistic thugs. But then (SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD), almost out of blue, the desperate pregnant woman turns into a savvy schemer without a conscience, ordering hits on witnesses, dealing with drug lords… I don’t know, but that was odd to me. It’s as if there was one or two missing scenes that would have set this up. (END OF SPOILER) There’s also a general feeling that, though the different storylines are rather well weaved together and somehow complete and echo each other, they don’t really build up to a strong climax. I like the whimsy of the last shot, and the conclusion between Douglas and his daughter was satisfying, but something like the last Cheadle scene didn’t really wrap it up for me.
In any case, “Traffic” remains a superior film, intelligently written, skillfully directed, with a great ambient Cliff Martinez score and very interesting visuals. There is a sense though that this is more of a movie you admire than one you love. This is still a very, very good film (it makes the lower half of my 2000 top ten), but not quite the masterpiece many critics are calling it.