ambitious and masterfully made, "Traffic" represents
docudrama-style storytelling at a very high level. A powerful
overview of the contemporary drug culture that is both panoramic
and specific, the multistrand story bears some traces of its
origins in a five-hour 1989 miniseries from Britain's Channel
4 and comes up a bit short in its concluding moments. But
with this sober-sided work following the more overtly "entertaining"
look at another societal cancer, "Erin Brockovich,"
by just nine months, Steven Soderbergh has certainly had the
most impressive year for an American director since Steven
Spielberg delivered both "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's
List" in 1993. With strong reviews and intelligent marketing,
USA Films looks likely to at least push this $50 million-plus
production close to the B.O. ceiling for specialized releases,
with crossover to more mainstream acceptance dependent upon
multiple unpredictable factors involving awards, the zeitgeist
and so on.
a large canvas and a huge (and hugely talented) cast, Soderbergh
and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement")
have endeavored to be as realistic and detailed as possible
in their dissection of the hows and whys of North American
drug trade and consumption. While its three principal storylines
don't presume to constitute a comprehensive account of the
subject, the shrewd choices of characters and locales manage
to illuminate an excitingly diverse range of participants,
from government officials and traffickers (sometimes the same
thing) to earnest enforcement officers, users and incidental
victims on both sides of the Mexican border and at all stations
on the class scale.
one of the film's driving impulses is clearly to cast a skeptical
(if not completely scornful) eye on the War on Drugs as long
defined by the U.S. government, it is a testament to the priorities
of Soderbergh and his collaborators that their first order
of business was to tell their complex stories as dramatically
and coherently as possible. Especially given the outsize dramatis
personae, this has been accomplished in exemplary fashion;
the various threads have been interwoven and balanced with
extraordinary skill so that the tension and power keep steadily
building, until close to the end of this nearly 2½-hour
glimpsed, in bleached-out sepia tones, are Tijuana-based cops
Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob
Vargas), who intercept an airborne coke drop-off in the desert
but are then themselves apprehended by army general Salazar
(Tomas Milian), who seizes the stash. In Stateside scenes
drenched in bluish hues, Ohio State Supreme Court Justice
Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is about to be appointed
the nation's new drug czar, just as his bright 16-year-old
daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), is moving from recreational
drugs into heavier stuff with her preppie boyfriend and classmates.
color, determined and resourceful DEA agents Montel Gordon
(Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are conducting
a sting operation on San Diegobased dealer Eduardo Ruiz
(Miguel Ferrer), whom they hope will help them nail local
kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose pregnant society
wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), doesn't know the nature
of her husband's business.
storylines are effectively set up in a way that allows many
characters to become quickly well defined by presenting them
in extremis, Soderbergh pushes deeper to show how the pervasiveness
of drugs has poisoned the lives of everyone concerned, even
if most of the characters don't actually use drugs themselves.
In preparation for his job, Wakefield listens to the distilled
"wisdom" of U.S. politicians at a cocktail party
(where actual inside-the-Beltway figures, including senators
Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Don Nickles and Harry Reed, improvise
their dialogue), and later visits the Tijuana border crossing
where, in nifty candidly filmed footage, he gets a firsthand
impression of the daunting task facing authorities who try
to flush out smugglers on a daily basis.
Mexican side, the imposing, grandstanding Gen. Salazar, who
enjoys a public reputation as a drug-buster, is revealed to
be in on the action himself and involved in the attempt to
wipe out the Tijuana cartel to the benefit of the Juarez druglord.
To this end, he recruits cop Javier to capture hired assassin
Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.), who in turn is tortured
for info that leads him, as well as Javier and partner Manolo,
to fateful involvement in the case of the imprisoned Carlos
Ayala and his former San Diego contact Eduardo, who has been
persuaded to testify against him in U.S. court.
her transformation from shock over her husband's occupation
to ruthless command over his operation happens rather quickly,
Helena, in cahoots with her questionably motivated lawyer,
Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), stops at nothing to keep herself
in the money. In an action-suspense highlight that adroitly
employs the old Hitchcock standby of the planted bomb that
viewers know about but the characters do not, witness Eduardo
is being led to an explosives-rigged car by Montel and Ray,
only to change his mind and insist upon walking to his hotel,
a decision that leads to more than one surprise.
vice tightens on all the characters, Caroline descends into
outright addiction. Furious at his wife (Amy Irving) for having
known about their daughter's problem for some time without
having told him, Wakefield trolls the mean streets in search
of his only child, finally recruiting her cocky b.f., Seth
(Topher Grace), to locate her in a dingy motel.
some of the individual stories end tragically, others equivocally,
and maybe one with a sense of release and transformation.
But none concludes without trauma and resulting deep scars.
The film accepts that there are no easy answers to the gigantic
problem that drugs pose for society, but it also is animated
by the underlying suggestion that the status quo is unacceptable,
that the combination of U.S. naivete with heavily financed
interdiction and strong-arming of foreign governments isn't
paying dividends; the absence of voiced alternatives is mocked
and lamented in a telling scene in which Wakefield asks his
advisers to brainstorm on the matter and no one has a thing
the filmmakers apparently didn't care to cross the line from
implicit critique into advocacy, they have still fumbled by
not working more sting and irony into the picture's concluding
section. Finding himself unable to deliver his intended pat
homilies at his first press conference as drug czar due to
what he's been through with his daughter, Wakefield disappointingly
comes up with nothing personal to offer in their place; this,
followed by some well-meaning but dramatically wishy-washy
rehab footage, winds up this story strand in irritatingly
soft fashion compared with the more intriguing, ambiguous
feeling of the other stories' final notes.
the film himself (as he did on his 1996 low-budgeter "Schizopolis")
under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has given
the film tremendous texture as well as a vibrant immediacy
through constant handheld operating, mostly using available
light, and manipulating the look both in shooting and in the
lab. Stephen Mirrione's editing, which gives "Traffic"
a beautifully modulated overall shape, is characterized on
a moment-to-moment basis by jump cuts and jagged rhythms.
Overall result is far too stylized to call the approach verite,
but pic looks far more caught-on-the-run, and therefore far
less staged, than all but a few other American films. Philip
Messina's expressively diverse production design and Cliff
Martinez's synth-heavy background score are also big pluses.
virtual given in Soderbergh's work that the performances will
be outstanding; there are just more actors here than usual,
and therefore more wealth to spread around. Douglas bookends
his outstanding early-in-the-year turn in "Wonder Boys,"
in which his character was quite taken with mind-altering
substances, with a strong characterization of a man whose
personal and professional lives are turned upside down by
his daughter's descent into drugs. In his most arresting screen
appearance since "The Usual Suspects," Del Toro
is magnetic as a cop who navigates through extremely hazardous
legal and moral reefs. The undeservedly underused Ferrer makes
the most of his screen time as the bitterly cynical mid-level
operative left with little choice but to rat on his boss;
Cuban-born Italian cinema vet Milian creates an indelible
impression as the leathery, corrupt Mexican army general;
then-pregnant Zeta-Jones is natural and credible as a pampered
wife who's tougher under her soft features than anyone could
have imagined; Cheadle and Guzman generate sympathy for their
agents' dedication and risk-taking; Collins throws some deft
moves into his perf as a crafty hit man; and Vargas shades
the character of Del Toro's partner with contrasts that help
distinguish the intelligence, ethics and luck of the two men.
Salma Hayek shines in a brief, uncredited cameo as the glamorous
mistress of the Juarez druglord.
further graced by the decision to have the Mexican characters
speak in Spanish whenever they presumably would in life, resulting
in enhanced reality as well as significant subtitled dialogue,
which really shouldn't pose much of a problem even to mainstream