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Addressing the subject of drugs in America is a daunting challenge, and Steven Soderbergh's daring, blunt Traffic doesn't disappoint. It's based on an equally effective original UK tele-series, Traffik. The message here is that our government's War on Drugs is actually an excuse to not deal with the social ills behind the problem. Now that the government's function is to provide public relations for the more powerful big business sector, it's easy to see the drug cartel leaders as less inhibited, wildcat businessmen.
The story is one of corruption and wasted good intentions. Distinguished judge Robert Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed the nation's drug czar, taking over from disenchanted General Ralph Landry (James Brolin) and encouraged by the President's Chief of Staff (Albert Finney). Wakefield finds Washington to be a political swamp unconcerned with doing anything about drugs. Back home with his wife Barbara (Amy Irving), he must deal with his daughter Caroline's (Erika Christensen) growing involvement in drugs as well.
Traffic is a socially-conscious liberal 'issue' movie, the kind conservatives decry as slanted and biased. It is no less calculated than Philadelphia or even Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in its desire to sway the opinion of its viewers. The trick is to not be condescending: the common denominator of all three movies is that intelligent liberal filmmakers have tried to make the movie they think the public is ready to see. The message wants to be, 'Here's enlightenment with your entertainment.'
Traffic contains tough talk and an honest appraisal of the enormity of a foe that can outspend and even outfight the US government. Corruption in Mexico is clearly delineated but the filmmakers have decided to take the approach that on the US side of things, there is only well-meaning naiveté. America very badly needs to wise up and realize that drugs are all around them. Going further and saying that the War on Drugs industry itself might be suspect is a pill America still won't swallow, even after the 'isolated case' of ContraGate. The Drug Underworld shares with legitimate business the desire to hide and launder money, and the need to market to its customer base with the least possible government interference.
Everyone knows people who have fallen victim to drugs, often in our own families, and this film wisely stays on a personal level. If Judge Wakefield publicly admitted his daughter were an addict, his ability to function in Washington would be as ruined. The same goes for Helena Ayala's prospects of tearing duck with the girls at the country club after she's been outed as the wife of a drug lord. Drugs 'aren't there' and people involved with them 'aren't there'. If the movie is refreshing, it's because it's bluntly honest in showing affluent kids turning on, drug cops that know full well they're running up sand hills ("some day I wanna make big arrests, you know, white people"), and an entire planeload of drug bureaucrats that haven't a single idea to offer on how to do their jobs. It's critical that no prevention-education advocates are on the plane, or there definitely wouldn't be silence! Making the smart-ass private school dealer the spokesman for the big speech relating Drugs to Class and Economic reality is the strongest and most honest scene of all.
Multi-plot, multi-character sagas are tough to craft in these days where even giant blockbuster epics seem to have only a handful of speaking parts. Soderbergh helps keep his stories straight by visually stylizing the three main subplots. A yellowish cast permeates the Mexican scenes and a blue one marks some of the Michael Douglas episodes. The script never bogs down in bald exposition, although quite a few characters harangue others with their opinions. Miguel Ferrer's defeated smuggler does this exceptionally well.
Mexico is handled fairly, even if it is too easy to judge the whole country on the basis of what we see here. Making Javier Rodriquez so savvy and controlled will do a lot for the image of Mexican males -- note that we don't see him relating to a girlfriend or a wife, where he might be revealed as thuggishly macho. He's instead seen consoling Manolo's despondent wife, as a proper caballero. Kingpin Ayalya comes off as a less threatening version of the demonized character played by Robert Davi in Licence to Kill. For this viewer the most personally refreshing scenes were the ones showing the affluent, gracious Ayalas turning into vicious killers the moment their lifestyle is endangered. In Savant's book, that's the true face of upscale living.
Second runner-up is the moment when Caroline and her friends dump their OD'd pal on the emergency room driveway. To avoid arrest, kids will abandon each other to die. Ethics are no longer an issue. All this money, good schooling and parental concern mean nothing in the face of draconian drug laws. Finally, the sight of the drug czar's daughter being ****ed by the downtown drug dealer is a shock that complacent parents need to see ... maybe it will make a few realize what their kids might be doing, and conclude that conservative 'just say no' speeches are patronizing nonsense. 1
Although the complicated plot is made amazingly clear a few confusing situations do arise, such as figuring out exactly who is trying to kill who and why in the double-assassination scene. And some viewers don't follow Catherine Zeta-Jones' conversion from shocked housewife to replacement Drug Lord. Dialog hinting at the fact that her husband found her as a prostitute doesn't help much; how does that reconcile with the charming, refined woman we first meet? The answer is we still subscribe to cultural fairy tales, like the kind that draw artificial lines between "types" of women.
Traffic is too smart to make speeches. The 1956 movie The Harder they Fall ends with Humphrey Bogart quitting his lucrative but crooked job to make a big anti-boxing statement. He starts typing his exposé as 'the end' fades up. If Traffic were treated similarly, Michael Douglas would publicly quit in front of the microphones and tell everyone off -- the President, the military, all of us. Douglas' father Kirk essentially does just this in Paths of Glory. That's the grandstanding cliché that usually prevails when filmmakers want to garner awards for being 'courageous'. It's nice that this movie avoids it.
I was taught that Frank Norris' The Octopus influenced public opinion against robber barons and helped Theodore Roosevelt with his reforms. Sometimes a socially conscious film does show the public what it already knew, but didn't collectively know it knew. If the result is just more hopelessness and apathy then perhaps it's too late for this kind of film. I think Traffic is more constructive than that. Without ever saying so in words, it condemns our War on Drugs as a war on our own children for political publicity. That's a very healthy idea to spread around.
DVD Blu-ray of Traffic is an HD remaster duplicating the contents of a pricey 2006 DVD release. Disc producer Kim Hendrickson rounded up an impressive group of extras.
Steven Soderbergh's commentary is characteristically open and gracious. He and his writer Stephen Gaghan analyze each and every scene. Soderbergh's not above saying that he simply had a rotten and uninspired day, to describe the scene where Catherine Zeta-Jones' kid is almost kidnapped on the beach. No excuses. We also find out that he started serving as his own director of photography on this film (under a pseudonym) for creative reasons, not because he wanted to hog credit. His explanations are interesting and artistically sound.
Savant only sampled the other two commentaries. The second includes input from two law enforcement officials that more or less agree with the picture's low opinion of the War on Drugs. The third is dedicated to the composer and as such is more limited in interest, but will obviously be a hot destination for aspiring film composers.
The selection of deleted scenes is made fascinating by the director's comments. The director expresses ambivalence about whether a scene belongs in or out, yet all play well and in most cases would have enriched the movie. Soderbergh stresses that USA films allowed him to shoot his entire overlong script with the idea that it would have to be shaped in the editing room. One successful lift is a replay of a sequence from the English original, where Catherine Zeta-Jones is asked to smuggle a packet of drugs into the States when she knows she's being closely monitored by DEA agents. It works just fine, and we have to admire the director's willingness to yank it out. In the finished film Catherine Zeta-Jones seems to change from innocent housewife to criminal mastermind rather abruptly. Soderbergh agrees, and a half-dozen short bits showing Zeta-Jones hardening under the advances of her slimy lawyer Dennis Quaid might have made the transition more credible.
One extra featurette is a color stylization demonstration. Traffic is own of the first early-Millennium movies to make use of cinematography with extreme color choices or purposely degraded images. In HD this stylization is even more intriguing. It's the kind of thing you have to admire Soderbergh for, going to the trouble to obtain an organic photochemical look instead of just processing the scenes digitally. But we don't get a full rationale for why he went for this style.
Other extras offer insights to Soderbergh's sophisticated shooting style, while picture and dialogue editing demos show that his key creatives had to stay sharp to keep up with him. The El Paso drug enforcement center scene and the Washington cocktail reception scene are analyzed with the uncut three-camera coverage for each, giving attentive viewers the opportunity to scrutinize the director's choices. The editing demonstration given by cutter Stephen Mirrone shows the Avid interface and might not mean much to civilians, but was interesting to see from an editor's point of view. Mirrone assembles scenes with multiple cameras as layers that he can monitor and cut up. It's a technique I've used often, but not with the incredible material he gets to work with. Elsewhere, his horse sense regarding pacing and finding the focus of a scene is well addressed. The dialogue-editing demo by sound cutter Larry Blake is even more exacting, as he shows us the intricacies of his craft. Location tracks with recording problems are addressed, along with the creation of a flawlessly replaced ADR line.
After all that the trailers and TV spots seem superfluous. An extra with appeal to dog lovers is an exhaustive selection of US Customs K-9 Corps drug-sniffing Dog Trading Cards, a promotional campaign that shows us how poorly our War-On-Drugs taxes are being spent. Collect 'em all! Each card has a photo of a champion narc-puppy with vital statistics and major bust achievements (but no ERA's ). Perhaps the doggies deserve the honors -- we're told that at least one dog had to be retired because there was a mob hit put out on him. Stephen Gaghan jokes that maybe it had to go into a doggy witness protection program.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. As a freshman at UCLA in 1970, my out-of-town roommate smoked his first joint in the dorms, just plain forgot that marijuana was illegal, and was soon arrested innocently toking on Hollywood Boulevard. The ethics of his 'crime' were nothing compared to the heat that came down -- he was threatened with expulsion. It caused such a disruption in his life, with the law trying to criminalize him, that he was quickly radicalized against anything governmental.
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T'was Ever Thus.