because the opponent is so terrifying and insidious ("an
allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind," someone
calls it here), our desperation to win the war against drugs
detailed in "Traffic" has made it the most unexamined
conflict of our time, something we are more than willing to
throw dollars at but not so eager to actually analyze and
Given that, it took a certain amount of nerve to tackle the
chaotic, unfocused, largely unsuccessful waste of lives and
money that is the drug war today in a major motion picture
with an ensemble cast including Michael Douglas and Catherine
Zeta-Jones. Complex and ambitious, "Traffic" is
that film, and its examination of how pervasive drugs are,
how wide a swath they cut in our society, though not always
completely successful, is yet another indication of how accomplished
a filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has become.
Soderbergh, whose equally sure-handed but very different "Erin
Brockovich" came out earlier this year, has once again
opted for a change of pace. For one thing, as written by Stephen
Gaghan (based on a British TV miniseries), "Traffic"
effortlessly intertwines several complex stories across two
countries and several cities without ever dropping a stitch.
At the same time, using the pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh
has expertly shot the film himself in a neo-documentary, run-and-gun
style whose emphasis on held-held camera work adds to its
immediacy (Soderbergh has mentioned Costa-Gavras' "Z"
as his model here).
Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") has clearly done
considerable research into the film's theme, and his script
is strongest in its broad outlines, its ability to convey
lots of information about the drug trade and show it to be
a kind of pernicious octopus, with tentacles powerful enough
to make almost everyone it touches corrupt, complicit or potentially
Unfortunately, "Traffic" is much less secure when
it comes to dialogue and the creation of individualized characters.
Some of its narrative threads are noticeably less compelling
than others, and its people, no matter what social strata
they occupy, have a tendency to sound a lot like standard
While keeping the notion of intertwined stories from the British
original, "Traffic" has sensibly changed the geographic
focus from the Turkey-Britain drug trade to the more near-at-hand
Mexico-U.S. situation. And by adroit use of filters and other
techniques, Soderbergh has given each segment distinctive
visual markings: a brown cast for Mexico, blue for Cincinnati
and environs, a bright look for San Diego.
The Mexican section (in Spanish with subtitles) is by far
the most effective, partially because it's got the film's
best performance. That's by Benicio Del Toro, an actor ("The
Usual Suspects," "Snatch") who's always been
much admired for his subtle power but whose nuanced authority
has never been more on view than as a state policeman who
goes to work for Gen. Salazar (an effective Tomas Milian),
the army's designated illicit drug fighter.
The film's biggest star is Douglas, a solid choice for Robert
Wakefield, an Ohio Supreme Court judge who's just been selected
as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. A square
shooter who believes in his mission, Wakefield just happens
to have a 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen) who, unknown
to him, is a major narcotics abuser. When the judge says,
"It's time to see the front lines," he doesn't realize
the battlefield is his own bathroom.
Weakest of all in terms of plausibility is the section involving
Zeta-Jones as Helena Ayala, a pampered wife who suddenly discovers
that her husband (Steven Bauer) and his oily attorney (Dennis
Quaid) are major drug players. Even with the expert assistance
of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán playing DEA agents,
this plot strand takes turns that are way too questionable
for its own good.
No matter what straits these people find themselves in at
the film's opening, "Traffic" inexorably tightens
the noose around them. If the film's plotting has a flaw,
it's that, in its eagerness to make its points in an emotional
way, it falls back too readily on the excesses of melodrama.
Sometimes we feel we're watching an updated version of "Marijuana:
The Weed With Roots in Hell," or, to go back even further,
a dramatization of the titillating horrors faced by young
women in the dread clutches of the white slave trade.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, one of the difficulties with
"Traffic" is that it feels like the filmmakers are
tiptoeing around the implications of their good work. As a
big-budget film in a controversial area, "Traffic"
seems especially eager to be seen balanced, to be fair--for
instance, to the hard-working and sincere anti-drug agents
putting their lives at risk. So though it takes important
steps in that direction, the film pulls back from what seems
to be its own logical conclusion: No matter how much money
we throw at the drug problem ($45 billion per annum at last
count) and how heroically they're implemented by those at
the front lines, current policies simply do not work.
No one expects a Michael Douglas-starring film, and one that
has Sens. Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer and Charles Grassley
playing themselves, to take the kind of strong stance for
drug decriminalization that, for instance, New Mexico's Republican
Gov. Gary Johnson has. Still, many of the film's stronger
moments, like Douglas' character getting absolutely no response
when he asks for aides to think out of the box about the problem,
point in that direction.
Given what this film shows, a clearer stand on decriminalization
or even treatment in place of prison seems in order. Without
one, watching "Traffic," artfully made though it
is, feels a little like seeing a version of "The Insider"
that thought it politic to waffle on whether cigarettes were
a danger to your health.
rating: R, for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence
and some sexuality. Times guidelines: scenes of torture and
an overall air of pervasive violence and menace.