Taking on the subject of drugs in America is a daunting challenge, and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic doesn't disappoint. It's based on an original UK teleseries Traffik that is equally effective. The message here is that our government's war against drugs is really an excuse to not deal with the social problems involved. Business is far more powerful than government, and now that government is really just a PR branch of big business, it's easy to see the drug cartels as less-inhibited, wild-cat businessmen.
In Mexico, resourceful Tijuana policeman Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) has excellent survival skills that come in handy when he's involuntarily drafted as a special operative of General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who claims to be wiping out the drug cartels of Northern Mexico. Javier kidnaps hit man Francisco Flores, aka Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr.) for Salazar, and together with his partner Monolo (Jacob Vargas) is soon deeply enmeshed in Salazar's military regime.
In San Diego, DEA agents Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) capture smuggler Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) and force him to finger affluent bigshot Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose unknowing wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is thrown into an emotional tailspin of debt and worry. Lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) cannot get Carlos out of prison. While Helena adapts to the necessity of stepping into her husband's shoes in order to retain her lifestyle, Ray and Montel struggle to keep hit men away from their star witness Eduardo.
As things become more complicated, the three plots begin to interconnect. Frankie Flowers is recruited by a now drug-wise Helena; Javier and his partner independently connect with Wakefield's DEA agents, and Wakefield meets with Salazar to continue the War on Drugs, not knowing the general is playing a double game. Ironically, when Wakefield takes upon himself the recovery of his lost, heroin-addicted daugher, it's her boyfriend and drug source, preppy-jerk Seth Abrahams, (Topher Grace) who lectures him on the truth of the situation, and the depth of his illusions.
Traffic is a socially-conscious liberal 'issue' movie, the kind conservatives decry as slanted and biased. Of course that's true, and Traffic 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.'
There's tough talk in Traffic 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 become victims to drugs, often in our own families, and this film wisely stays on a personal level. If Judge Wakefield came out and admitted his daughter were an addict, his ability to function in Washington would be as ruined as are Helena Ayala's prospects of tearing duck with the girls at the country club after she's been outed as the wife of a druglord. 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 the prevention-education people aren't on the plane, or there definitely wouldn't be silence! Giving the smart-ass private-school dealer 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 make work 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, with a yellowish cast for Mexico and a blue one for some of the Michael Douglas scenes. 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 they see here. Making Javier 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; the most personally refreshing scenes in the movie for this viewer 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 friends try to dump their OD'd pal on the emergency room driveway. All this money, good schooling and parental concern mean nothing in the face of draconian drug laws -- ethics are no longer an issue. To avoid arrest, kids will abandon each other to die. 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 are doing, and conclude that conservative 'just say no' speeches are patronizing nonsense. 1
Although the complicated plot is made amazingly clear there are a few confusing situations, 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 Czar. 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 that too many of us still believe in cultural fairy tales, like the kind that draw artificial lines between two types of women.
Traffic is too smart to make speeches. The 1956 movie The Harder they Fall ends with Humphrey Bogart quitting 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', and it's nice that this movie avoids it.
I was taught that Frank Norris' The Octopus truly influenced public opinion against robber barons and helped Theodore Roosevelt with his reforms. How one values Traffic may depend on whether it has any influence on public opinion. Sometimes these socially conscious films have the knack of showing 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.
Criterion's DVD special edition first came out in 2002 but it's being reissued now in a much wider distribution pattern. Its extras are still impressive.
This is the third Steven Soderbergh commentary I've heard, and I'm ready for more. He's open, honest, and gracious in his praise without turning the track into a group hug. On the terrific Catch-22 commentary, he brings out director Mike Nichols as possibly no-one else could, forcing memories of shooting from 30 years ago. Here, 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 very interesting and artistically sound.
Savant only sampled the other two commentaries. The second included input from two law enforcement officials who seemed to approve of the picture's low assessment of the War on Drugs. The third was dedicated to the composer and was much more limited in interest - but will obviously be a hot destination for aspiring film composers.
Disc two's deleted scenes are fairly fascinating. Savant listened to them first with the commentary, and then by themselves. It's interesting to hear a director express ambivalence about whether a scene belongs in or out, as all of these 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's obviously being closely monitored by DEA agents. It works just fine, and you have to admire the director's willingness to yank it out.
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 helped soften the problem.
The color-stylization demonstration is elaborate and thorough but not very compelling. The lab process to make the Mexico scenes look as if they were shot on an inferior, yellowed film stock seems almost arbitrary. It's the kind of thing you have to admire Soderbergh for, going to the trouble to get an organic photochemical look instead of just processing the scenes digitally. But since we don't get a full rationale for why he went for this style, it doesn't make that big of an impression.
Other extras give nice insights to Soderbergh's sophisticated shooting style, while picture and dialogue editing demos show the talent required 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 scrutinze 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 a 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, as well as the creation of a flawlessly-replaced ADR line.
After all that, the trailers and TV spots seem almost superfluous. The one extra that only dog lovers will respond to is an exhaustive selection of US Customs K-9 Corps drug-sniffing Dog Trading Cards, a War-On-Drugs promotional campaign that tells us how poorly our 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 roomate smoked a joint for the first time in the dorms, lost perspective, 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.