“There are few areas in which the government has failed more than the War on Drugs. …” So writes Ethan Nadleman, one of the leading critics of America’s extended experiment with controlling the spread of illegal drugs. Just like we would have to look hard to find an area of public policy more misconstrued than the War on Drugs, so would we have to look hard to find a more daring and effective movie about it than “Traffic.”
In his 10th film, director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brokovich,” “Out of Sight”) brings his gritty, unconventional style of filmmaking to examine the business, strident moralizing and massive law enforcement that comprises the conflict. Aided by Marc Gaghan’s surprisingly tight and fair script, Soderbergh provides an informed and illuminating examination of the competing forces at play by looking at the role of drugs in suburban America, Mexico and the Beltway. Along the way, he manages some insightful criticism of the futility of the Drug War without sounding preachy or liberally biased.
In weaving together three separate stories and taking on such a complex and difficult issue, “Traffic” immediately carries an unusually high capability of failing. Yet all three stories, all brilliantly acted and paced, end up melding together to show common threads.
The film begins in the desolate lands along the U.S.-Mexico border where a Mexican state policeman, Javier Rodriguez (Benecio del Toro in the performance of his career), and his partner catch some coke smugglers. Intercepted by a higher-ranking police force who take the drugs, Rodriguez starts a string of unpleasant discoveries about the narcotics business and its connections with the upper echelons of power within Mexico. Walking a fine line between outlaw and cop, del Toro exhibits all the contradictory impulses and temptations working through Rodriguez. Filmed entirely in Spanish, the Mexican story line is the most electrifying and far-reaching in Gaghan’s script.
Across the border in San Diego, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) watches in horror as her husband is dragged into jail on drug distribution charges. Watched by two loyal DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman), Ayala discovers the truth behind her lavish lifestyle and is forced to make a painful choice between profit and civic duty.
Across the country, Ohio Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) gets appointed as the nation’s drug czar, which doesn’t bode well for his daughter’s (Erika Christensen) taste for fresh freebase. Watching a wealthy all-American prep school girl demise into whoring and junkie-dom is the most horrifying feature of the film, and it provides a disturbing parallel to the murderous scenes in Mexico where it’s decided who will have the right to give the daughter her goods.
What makes “Traffic” such a magnificent work is how successful it is on so many different levels. The acting is first-rate with del Toro, Zeta-Jones and Douglas all giving entirely convincing performances. Soderbergh’s filmmaking style, in which he combines unsteady camera work with shooting each story line through a different colored filter, gives the story a particularly gritty and realistic tone. Gaghan has improved his dialogue tremendously since the insipid “Rules of Engagement,” and his timely script features numerous memorable lines about the frustration and futility of the Drug War. “Traffic’s” main shortcoming is that it lacks a firm and satisfying resolution, sort of like the War on Drugs itself.
Despite being a critic’s fave, Soderbergh remains unappreciated by a commercial audience. “Traffic,” and the shoe-in Oscar nominations it will get, ensure that he won’t be any longer.