Soderbergh is definitely on a roll with his last four features
-- Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic --
all smart films, often inspired, almost always interesting.
(Id toss in his hilarious, definitely offbeat 1996 Schizopolis
as well.) Out of Sight was the sort of perfect commercial
confection that should have been a huge hit, yet somehow it
didnt really find its audience until it came out on
video. The Limey was designed to be a small-scale chamber
piece, so it wasnt until Erin Brockovich that the still-young
director -- all of 37 -- scored the kind of major, big-studio
success that will assure his bankability for years.
Erin Brockovich seemed something of a retreat: Soderbergh
kept a rein on his favorite stylistic devices and signatures.
It was a work more of intelligence than inspiration, a remarkable
application of skills to one of the most cliché-prone,
formulaic genres out there.
Traffic, Soderbergh seems to be a bit more confident again
about exercising his style within a big-budget Hollywood production
(as he was in Out of Sight). This ambitious film tries to
weave a panoramic view of the drug trade by following three
loosely interconnected plot threads.
story concerns Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman),
two DEA agents trying to break up a huge drug-smuggling operation
from the U.S. side of the border. They bust Eduardo (Miguel
Ferrer), who leads them to Carlos (Steven Bauer), a big-time
importer and social leader in San Diego. Carloss wife,
Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has no idea her husband is
a crook. But, with her husband in jail and herself facing
the imminent destruction of their finances and their future,
Helena -- in a sort of ironic feminist twist -- manages to
take over where her husband has left off.
on the other side of the border, two Tijuana policemen --
Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas) -- are
walking the tenuous line between law and crime: they attempt
to be honest cops by helping the countrys leading military
drug buster (Tomas Milian) until they realize that he is simply
wiping out one cartel to bolster the fortunes of another.
in the States, respected judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas)
takes the job of national drug-enforcement czar. Ironically,
he and his wife (Amy Irving) are in complete denial about
the obvious fact that Caroline (Erika Christensen), their
privileged 16-year-old daughter, has a drug habit.
intercuts these three stories, all of which are different
aspects of one big story -- a portrait of the economics and
human conflicts that make the drug trade completely unconquerable.
The film is careful not to make harsh, knee-jerk judgments
against the end users or even against some of those who profit.
The amount of money involved is simply too insane, and its
impossible for some of the players to stake out a perfectly
clear moral. The seemingly honest guys on the street, like
Javier and Manolo, are in a milieu so corrupt that there simply
is no well-lit path of righteousness. Wakefield thinks hes
a tough, honest crime fighter, but he is being used by the
White House as a public relations ploy, and even he flinches
only slightly at the offer of special allowances for his daughter.
not a particularly optimistic picture, nor should it be. In
a country where "the drug problem" is such a convenient
scapegoat for far deeper societal ills and where being "tough
on drugs" is a political mantra so powerful that even
many self-styled liberals consider it a valid reason to revoke
civil liberties, there is little reason to be optimistic.
Yes, drugs create social problems; but the demand for and
broad usage of drugs are also created by social problems.
What Traffic does is to speak that which for any politician
would be unspeakable: the war on drugs is not only losing,
it never had a chance.
ways, Traffic makes a cogent case. But its also a disappointing
film. Its easy to see why advance word-of-mouth is so
strong: its two-thirds of a terrific movie. That is,
the Del Toro story and the Cheadle/Guzman/Zeta-Jones story
suggest how altogether great Traffic could have been; but
the Douglas story is so much less compelling that its
hard to believe its part of the same film.
both in style and in content, the Douglas thread feels almost
like a TV movie: good liberal intentions, few rough edges,
and some vaguely hopeful speeches at the end. But the setup
-- new drug czar is so intent on cleaning up the world that
he cant see the corruption in his own home -- is too
pat. And, likewise, its details seem fake and forced compared
to the rest.
despite the apparent research Soderbergh and screenwriter
Stephen Gaghan did, their resolution to Carolines drug
problem simply does not jibe with the real world. Were
supposed to believe that, by throwing the kid into rehab,
theres some progress being made. But she doesnt
want to kick the habit. Like lots of people, she enjoys being
a junkie. Anybody with experience of junkies quickly realizes
that rehab is worthless if the person doesnt see that
his or her habit is a problem. You clean up, you get out,
and you simply start over again.
is a second problem -- a single disturbing moment in Soderberghs
treatment of Carolines descent into the abyss. We see
this rosy-cheeked, middle-class kid take to dispensing sex
in exchange for drugs -- a valid signifier of her degradation.
But Soderbergh pulls out the oldest, vilest, most notoriously
evocative image to emphasize this: shes not just sleeping
with a street criminal; shes sleeping with a big black
buck of a street criminal.
say Im being "P.C." Point out that in the
part of the country where the story takes place, low-level
urban drug dealers are overwhelmingly African American. That
still doesnt change the fact that the image of the big,
virile, dangerous black man having his way with the flower
of white womanhood is a racist provocation that immediately
evokes memories of Birth of a Nation. I dont think that
Soderbergh intended to be suggesting, "Not only is she
selling herself; shes selling herself to one of them."
But, within the historical context of such images, it would
be naive to deny that the audience will take the implication
that this marks an even deeper shame.
patness and flatness of the Douglas plot is in striking contrast
to the rest of the film. Douglas tries gamely, but he doesnt
get much to work with. Mores the pity, because the bulk
of the movie is filled with wonderful actors getting to do
wonderful stuff. (Well leave out the distasteful sight
of the loathsome Republican demagogue Orrin Hatch in one party
scene.) Miguel Ferrer is perfect, as always, and once again
Soderbergh figures out how to use Cheadle and Guzman infinitely
better than anyone else has. Zeta-Jones is excellent as a
classic film noir "tough babe." But its Del
Toro who really gets to strut his stuff with a subtle, ambiguous,
and riveting performance. In a field of top-notch actors,
hes the one whom you remember days later.
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