Soderbergh's great, despairing squall of a film, "Traffic,"
may be the first Hollywood movie since Robert Altman's "Nashville"
to infuse epic cinematic form with jittery new rhythms and
a fresh, acid- washed palette.
pulse of the hand-held camerawork (by the director working
under a pseudonym) that roughly elbows its way into the center
of the action is perfectly suited to the film's hard-boiled
subject, America's losing war on drugs. The color scheme sandwiches
a few lush patches between sequences filmed in two hues
an icy blue and a sun-baked yellow-orange that are
as visually discordant as the forces doing battle.
Mr. Altman's masterpiece portrayed American culture as a jostling,
twangy carnival of honky-tonk dreams, "Traffic"
is a sprawling multicultural jazz symphony of clashing voices
sounding variations of the same nagging discontent. The performances
(in English and Spanish), by an ensemble from which not a
false note issues, have the clarity and force of pithy instrumental
solos insistently piercing through a dense cacophony.
run the social gamut, from affluent United States government
officials and wealthy drug lords on both sides of the United
States border with Mexico and their fat-cat lawyers, to the
foot soldiers doggedly toiling in a never-ending drug war.
indelible performances belong to Benicio Del Toro as a burly,
eagle-eyed Mexican state policeman of pluck and resourcefulness
who has the street smarts to wriggle out of almost any squeeze;
Michael Douglas, as a conservative Ohio Supreme Court Justice
who is appointed the country's new drug czar, and Erika Christensen,
as his sullen drug-addicted teenage daughter. Catherine Zeta-Jones
is also riveting as a wealthy, ruthless, Southern California
matron who is unaware that her husband is a high-level drug
smuggler until he is dragged out of their house by federal
which jumps around from Tijuana to Cincinnati to Washington
to San Diego, from a posh Ohio suburb to the inner city to
the Mexican desert to the White House itself, offers a coolly
scathing overview of the multibillion-dollar drug trade and
the largely futile war being waged against it.
despairing as it is, "Traffic" is not cynical. It
gives its isolated heroes in the trenches their due. One of
these is Javier Rodriguez (Mr. Del Toro), a wily, good-hearted
Mexican policeman who conspires with the Drug Enforcement
Administration to bring down his own boss (Tomas Milian),
a corrupt Mexican general who uses torture to get his way.
Other heroes include a pair of D.E.A. undercover agents, Montel
Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), who spend
half their lives in cramped vans engaged in surveillance.
is an updated, Americanized version of a 1989 British television
mini-series, "Traffik," that followed the drug trade
from Pakistan to Britain. From an ambiguous, paranoically-charged
opening desert sequence (reminiscent of the crop- dusting
scene in "North by Northwest"), in which Javier
and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), surrender a newly
captured truckload of cocaine to the corrupt general, to a
late scene in which an American agent risks his life to plant
a bug in a dealer's mansion, "Traffic" is an utterly
gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several
interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive
stories add up to is something grander and deeper than a virtuosic
is a tragic cinematic mural of a war being fought and lost.
That failure, the movie suggests, has a lot to do with greed
and economic inequity (third world drug cartels have endless
financial resources to fight back). But the ultimate culprit,
the movie implies, is human nature. Waging a war against drugs
isn't just a matter of combating corruption but of eradicating
the basic human desire to "take the edge off," as
Mr. Douglas's character, Robert Wakefield, says in defense
of his nightly drink of Scotch. "Otherwise, I'd be dying
of boredom," he adds.