"Traffic" (IMDb listing) is an exceptional film. A detailed, yet epic, examination of the many arms of the drug war. Rightfully so, it's being lauded for its story, its acting, and the important issues it confronts. But the real notoriety should be aimed at director Steven Soderbergh. "Traffic" is the culmination of Soderbergh's gifts. Regardless of what he directs in the future, this film will forever stand as one of Soderbergh's greatest achievements.
The story is complicated, with distinct settings and characters. In the affluent suburbs of Cincinnati and the high-level offices of Washington, the nation's newly appointed drug czar, conservative judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), has his proactive stand against the drug war challenged when he learns of his own teenaged daughter's drug problems. In Tijuana, Mexico, an honest, wily cop (Benicio Del Toro), battles smugglers, military leaders, and his own definition of loyalty, in a desperate attempt to bring a semblance of safety to his home. And in San Diego, an affluent housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has her psychological switch flipped when her husband is arrested by DEA agents and her stable world is threatened by tax creditors and drug lords. Each of these stories could have been a movie unto itself, but Soderbergh coaxes and weaves them together. Most notable, in a two-and-a-half hour span, the characters show growth, nuance is revealed, and legitimate dramatic texture is created. For all who contend that adaptations would require hour-upon-hour to faithfully recreate, "Traffic" (based on a 1989 six-hour British mini-series) serves as evidence to the contrary.
But Soderbergh does more than examine character and story. Amidst the intrigue you'll find subtle comments on addiction and the drug war. The "war" aspects drug seizures, dogs, gun-toting agents provide action, but this action is a misguided attempt to battle an unseen enemy. The enemy is addiction itself, and it's present, in one form or another, throughout the film. Douglas's judge relies too heavily on scotch, his wife (Amy Irving) hints at present-day sedation and college drug experimentation, unsupervised private school students blow their trust funds on coke and heroine while maintaining straight-A's, even the drug war's foot soldiers, DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), banter about the merits of "the patch" as a means of shaking nicotine. How can a war be staged when the enemy is everywhere? Soderbergh shows that attention and involvement, examined vividly through the relationship between Douglas's character and his junkie 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen), is where real change is found. In a master stroke, the point is made subtly, leaving final judgement to the viewer.
Ensemble casts are usually unwieldy, often only marked by one or two strong performances ("Swingers" is a great movie, but only Vince Vaughn stands out). That's not the case with "Traffic." The principal players Douglas, Christensen, Zeta-Jones, Del Toro, and Cheadle all turn in riveting performances. Del Toro and Zeta-Jones are both surprising, each revealing previously-unseen acting depth. But it's the secondary performers, the film's bench players, that lay the story's foundation. Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Albert Finney, and James Brolin (yes, you read that correctly) all hold their own. This is one of the best ensemble films ever made.
In time "Traffic" may emerge as one of the most technically proficient films ever made as well, and again, this is Soderbergh's doing. The credits list Peter Andrews as the cinematographer, but Andrews is a pseudonym used by Soderbergh. What this means is that every shot, including the complicated handheld work, was overseen by Soderbergh. He's also responsible for the different color schemes that paint the film. A bleached, burnt yellow marks the Mexican settings and moments of crisis, while a deep blue emerges when calm has settled in U.S. locales. Other films have used the same device ("187", starring Samuel L. Jackson, is a recent example), but rarely does it transcend gimmickry. Combined with language use (English subtitles are employed in scenes with Spanish speakers), the filming in "Traffic" creates palpable borders.
When painting a realistic canvas, it's tempting for directors to linger too long on disturbing images. "Traffic's" scenes of drug use and the descent into addiction could have alienated the audience, but Soderbergh only shows what's necessary. Resisting the urge to ram the decay home allows the film's story to emerge.
"Traffic" is the year's finest example of how far a film can go when guided by an expert hand. Soderbergh blooms with this film, showcasing his storytelling and filmmaking skills, doing so not for personal recognition, but to create a remarkable piece of cinema.
Filmfodder Grade: A