Traffic
Universal // R // $29.98 // September 12, 2006
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted October 22, 2006
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage a war on your own family."

The Movie:
Previously known as an art house auteur (his first film sex, lies, and videotape being his most successful) and director of the sort-of mainstream George Clooney vehicle Out of Sight (which has a strong fan base but wasn't much of a box office hit), Steven Soderbergh made a bid for respectability in 2000 with not just one but two Oscar bait prestige projects. The ploy worked out pretty well for him. Both Erin Brockovich and Traffic were blockbuster hits, won a fair share of awards (including a Best Director Academy Award trophy for the latter), and solidified the filmmaker's standing on the Hollywood A-list.

Scripted by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic is adapted from the famous British miniseries Traffik and takes a hard look at the illegal drug trade from multiple perspectives. All sides of the issue are explored via a series of intersecting storylines. On the front lines, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) witnesses the rampant government corruption that facilitates the smuggling of drugs across the U.S. border. In the halls of American power, a politically ambitious judge (Michael Douglas) is picked as the new Drug Tsar and quickly runs into obstacles implementing new policies. In fact, even the judge's own daughter (Erika Christensen) and her privileged rich kid friends experiment with freebasing and begin the downward spiral of addiction. In the netherworld between these two extremes, a DEA agent (Don Cheadle) in California attempts to take down a drug running ring but finds the effort futile; even if he succeeds all he's done is clear the way for new competition to move in. Meanwhile, a society wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose husband is indicted on trafficking charges is forced into taking over his smuggling racket to pay their debts and protect her family.

The movie has a huge cast of other recognizable faces (Dennis Quaid, Albert Finney, Luis Guzman, Amy Irving, and Miguel Ferrer among others), but it's Del Toro who stands out in a star-making turn; he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but actually carries a big chunk of the movie and proves he can be an effective leading man. The story has an ambitious reach and a complicated structure. Soderbergh juggles all these elements with masterful control, maintaining a steady tone that emphasizes the tragedy of the situation without overstepping into preachiness, overwrought theatrics, or heavy-handed sermonizing. The movie asks many questions but is frank that it can deliver no answers. It takes no political stance either for or against our government's policies other than to point out that they clearly aren't working. The war on drugs is a self-generating, never-ending cycle of corruption, hypocrisy, and hopelessness with seemingly no possible solution.

The irony of the Drug Tsar's daughter being a junkie is perhaps a little forced, and Soderbergh (working as both director and cinematographer) employs an overtly schematic color design on the film that is somewhat effective but also a bit distracting. Scenes in Mexico are filtered in ugly, hellish yellow tones. Those in the circles of American government are bathed in sterile, cold blues. The middle-ground where these two extremes collide, those scenes in California near the border, have more natural colors. The intent behind the style is obvious but also disappointingly didactic, and not much in keeping with the even-handed tone in which the drama is handled. Even so, Traffic is a compelling, powerful work of socially-conscious filmmaking, and yet another fine achievement in Steven Soderbergh's eclectic career.

The HD DVD:
Traffic debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

Video:
The Traffic HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 with tiny letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

Here's what it comes down to: the movie is what it is. Soderbergh shot the picture in an extremely stylized, often intentionally degraded fashion. Many scenes are grainy, gritty, soft, and ugly. The Tijuana sections especially look like the print was duped down several generations from the original negative. Colors are heavily filtered and contrasts frequently bloom on the high end. The disc looks exactly like the film is meant to look, and it actually has some fascinating textures, but this just isn't the type of movie you buy for crystal clear HD image quality. While certain scenes show off the High-Def fairly well (primarily the blue-filtered Michael Douglas segments), on the whole there isn't much fine object detail or depth. Aside from some minor edge ringing in a few scenes, the disc represents the movie's intended style faithfully and I can't fault it for that, but most viewers will probably not find it a huge upgrade over standard DVD.

The Traffic HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or 2.0 formats. Although you might wonder why bother with a 2.0 mix, truth be told the two tracks sound more similar than not. The movie has little to no surround use at all, much less anything that takes advantage of the split rear soundstage. There's a fair amount of bass in gunshots, but nothing that will rock the house. The music sounds good and dialogue is always clear, so there's nothing to complain about there. Switching between the two audio options on selected scenes, I did feel that the discrete 5.1 mix sounded a little more robust in the front soundstage, and I would default to that one. The quality of the track is technically fine; this just isn't a showy soundtrack.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks - None.

Extras:
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).

All of the supplements from Universal's original, rather barren DVD release have carried over. We don't get any of the exclusive features from the more elaborate Criterion Collection DVD, unfortunately.

  • Inside Traffic (19 min.) A Showtime channel promotional special that features a small amount of behind-the-scenes footage and cast/crew interviews, but spends most of its length showcasing clips from the movie.
  • U.S. Teaser Trailer
  • U.S. Theatrical Trailer
  • German Trailer - This one is ridiculously dubbed into German and sounds like they only used two actors (one male and one female) for the voices of the entire cast.
  • U.S. TV Spots - 5 commercials in all, one of which seems to inadvertently glamorize drug use.
  • Photo Gallery - 40 images.

Final Thoughts:
Traffic is a powerful piece of drama and this HD DVD disc is recommended for anyone who doesn't already own the movie on another format. The technical aspects of the disc are fine, but unfortunately the nature of the movie precludes it from ever being stunning eye or ear candy. The picture quality is only a minor upgrade over standard DVD, and the disc's supplements are worthless. Owners of the Criterion Collection DVD will certainly want to hold onto that disc for its wealth of superior bonus features.

Related Articles:
Bubble (Blu-ray) - Steven Soderbergh
Syriana (HD DVD) - Stephen Gaghan
HD Review Index
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player



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