Written by Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s career has been one of the most eclectic and prolific of most modern directors. It was a slow burn, though. His directorial debut, sex, lies, and videotape, was a massive breakthrough in 1989. However, for all his promise, it led to a decade of commercial failures and an embrace of independent filmmaking and experimentation. It was 1998’s Out of Sight that changed things and led to his reemergence as a mainstream film director. Soderbergh never lost sight of those formative experimental years, and Traffic served as a bridge between more conventional filmmaking and the director’s insistence on playing with form and presentation.
Traffic is a film based on a BBC mini-series that follows three separate but intersecting plots centered around the War on Drugs in the United States & Mexico. In Tijuana, we follow police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro), who is brought into General Salazar’s inner circle, a high-ranking official that wants to take down the Obregón brothers who head the local cartel. Rodriguez and his partner become further intertwined with Mexico’s corruption, quickly realizing every side is out to have a piece of the drug trade and is only interested in eliminating the competition.
In the Midwest, we meet conservative judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. It becomes clear to Wakefield from his predecessor and longtime staff members that the War on Drugs is unwinnable, but he keeps moving forward with the transition. Meanwhile, his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become involved in drugs, her latest vice being freebasing cocaine. She and her boyfriend (Topher Grace) hole up in a cheap motel room where they spend the day blasting their minds with drugs. When her addiction comes to light Wakefield and his wife (Amy Irving) struggle with the best way to help their daughter.
The final plotline centers on Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who’s husband is arrested by the DEA for his role as a drug trafficker. Meanwhile, DEA agents Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Castro (Luis Guzman) are leading the investigation on Ayala’s operations, which also involves surveilling his wife. Helena finds herself becoming financially desperate. People whom her husband owes come around making threats, and she finds herself reaching the edge. Gordon and Castro get their hands on a significant witness against Ayala, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), whose testimony makes him a valued asset of the US government and the cartels’ target.
Soderbergh bit off so much with this film and does an excellent job developing each plot thread, allowing light crossing over but making sure each story has its own complete arc. One technique he uses to help the audience is by using three different color correction techniques for each story. Rodriguez’s sun-bleached Mexico story is shown in an overexposed sepia, Wakefield & his daughter’s journey through addiction is presented in a stark, cold blue. The California storyline looks the most conventional, with colors just slightly oversaturated. Soderbergh was an early adopter of digital filmmaking, and it shows here as those first cameras could show a lot of grain & distortion in the video. This was a detractor in some pictures, but here it helps with the cinema verite style that Soderberg was going for, a semi-documentary atmosphere with handheld camera work.
The best thing about Traffic is how Soderbergh presents the War on Drugs as an unwinnable conflict. Wakefield delivers a speech in the third act about how we are asked to go to war with our own children, and that understanding and offers of help will do more to curb the desire for drugs. The film does an excellent job of showcasing how overly complicated and pointless the mission to wipe out drugs is. It’s pointed out early in the movie that the cartels would have no power if the demand in the white suburbs of America weren’t there. The very law enforcement that claims to be fighting the spread of drugs regularly turns out to be on cartels’ payrolls.
The way Soderbergh delivers this message is not through the characters didactically spouting platitudes (I’m looking in your direction, Aaron Sorkin!). He keeps that documentarian style that distances his own views from the characters and never editorializes things. A few moments, particularly with the Wakefield character, come close to that, though, but the director manages to avoid going over that cliff into a movie of the week.
Traffic’s biggest problem is the scope of its story and how, even with a three hour running time, so many characters are still relatively undeveloped. I have to think that the original television version could do this, but you lose that in a feature film. Caroline is a non-character for most of the movie, just a drug-addicted teenager with minimal other defining characteristics. I also think Helena deserved some more development because we see her story arc rushed along to make her the head of her husband’s operations without really seeing her struggle along the way. Traffic certainly still holds up, one of those movies that created an aesthetic for the 2000s that is even mimicked today.