Traffik is a Channel Four (UK) mini-series originally broadcast in 1989. An investigative docu-drama, it traces the entire scope of the heroin. In the US, it's most famous for being the inspiration for Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Traffic, which won several Oscars. The mini-series is both more thorough and more convincing than the feature, thanks to brilliant writing and performances. Acorn Media's re-release of Traffik on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary provides another opportunity to revisit this outstanding production.
There are three primary plot
threads running through Traffik's six 50-minute episodes.
The first follows Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson), a British cabinet minister
leading the government's anti-drug campaign, as he travels between
Pakistan and London to forge an agreement with the Pakistanis that would
clamp down on the heroin trade and the farmers that supply it.
Then there is Helen Rosshalde (Lindsay Duncan), the English wife of
a German drug trafficker, who is determined to see her indicted husband
go free. Finally, there is Fazal (Jamal Shah), a Pakistani opium
farmer who is forced to leave his village and seek work in Karachi,
where he falls in with the country's biggest drug lord. These
three interwoven threads are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as
they each feature their own subplots and casts of characters.
(For those who have seen the
American feature, Lithgow and Rosshalde are paralleled in that version
by the characters played by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones,
respectively. Soderbergh's picture omits Fazal's story, and
replaces it with the plot surrounding the Benicio del Toro character.)
We see the poppy fields, the
tribal Pakistani heroin manufacturers, and the drug lord who exports
it. Then we follow heroin - as a substance and as a problem
- as it passes through the hands of German traffickers, into investigations
by German detectives, to English dealers and junkies, and into the offices
of 10 Downing Street. Series writer Simon Moore has channeled
a ton of research, and it shows. Even more impressive, it is never
dry. For all its ambition and multiple plot threads, Traffik
never takes shortcuts - never wades (even briefly) through implausible
territory in order to reach a narrative goal. The characters drive
the story, even while the series maintains a journalistic "non-fiction"
Lithgow is a cold fish, a righteous
bureaucrat in over his head; his slow realization of the odds he faces
and the inefficacy of his government's methods in fighting a "war
on drugs" is realistically gradual - as is his comprehension of
the extent and nature of his daughter Caroline's (Julia Ormond) addiction
to the very same drug he pursues. Helen Rosshalde's absolute
determination to free her husband is convincingly single-minded and
at times frightening. Fazal is ambitious in his own way, too;
after losing his ability to earn money as a farmer, he moves to the
city and into the inner circle of a fearsome drug lord, with tragic
consequences. These fully-formed characters drive the story, which
is refreshingly free from the blunt political messages that just about
any writer would be tempted to insert along the way.
For these reasons - incisive
writing, rounded characters, and propulsive storytelling - Traffik
is utterly engrossing. I watched all six episodes (five hours)
in a single sitting, which is unusual for me. After twenty years,
the show feels fresh and eye-opening. I doubt if any of the overarching
political and social issues touched on here have been ameliorated at
all over the intervening twenty years. If anything, the show will
seem even more relevant to American audiences now, given our alleged
military and security interests in that region.
Traffik is probably one of the best - and most influential - works ever produced for television. It excels in every aspect of its dramatics, and manages to be informative while maintaining the inherent complexity of its subject matter. The distractingly shoddy transfer, however, is a major drawback of this DVD. I urge everyone to see the show one way or another, but beware this set's visuals before making a purchase. If not for the transfer, this would be worthy of the DVD Talk Collector's Series. Taking the whole package into account, I have to go with Recommended.