Traffic (2000)



a review by Jeffrey Overstreet


After all of the hype and the early raves, Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s second major film of 2000 (after Erin Brockovich) turns out to be his attempt at making a Michael Mann film. 

With colorful camerawork, big performances from big actors, a nearly three-hour running time, a focus on powerful men and the conflict of ego and conscience, the film feels like a stylistic follow-up to Mann’s Heat and The Insider. In fact, even the solemn Brian Eno-flavored soundtrack sounds lifted from those films.

Traffic is about drugs, from the people who sell them on the street to the kids who buy them to the cops who try and nab the sellers to the U.S. Government officials that make the laws; and beyond that, it’s about cartels in Mexico that make millions on the stuff, and Tijuana cops who get messed up in corruption as they take sides. It aspires to be a bold exposé, refusing to glamorize the U.S. government, and yet being kinder than Oliver Stone might have been, portraying our nation’s leaders as helpless against the strength of the cartels rather than conspiring or covering anything up.

It’s Soderbergh’s most ambitious work to date. It’s also his most stylish, gathering all of the editing tricks, the flashy camerawork, and his superior talent of drawing great performances from great actors, all into one big stew. But in spite of all these advantages, the film is a mixed bag of successes and failures.

Traffic is a complicated web of stories packed into 140 minutes. So Soderbergh separates the threads of this tapestry by giving them each their own distinct color scheme: Mexico is bathed in bleached-out golds and whites, the drug underworld in cold metallic blue, and the U.S. government landscape as warmly red white and blue. It’s a successful experiment, as we might lose track of the wheres and the whos without visual cues. It also emphasizes just how different are the worlds of the cocktail-sipping U.S. government official and the hot, lawless lands of the “entrepreneurial police” of Mexico.
Soderbergh knows that style isn’t enough to make a blockbuster. With a subject this unpopular, he knows he needs big names to draw a big audience. Boy howdy, he got them! And he got good work out of them too.

First and foremost, Benicio Del Toro, long one of our most underappreciated actors, gets the most glamorous role: Javier, a Tijuana policeman who tries to keep from getting stuck doing the will of the powerful drug cartels. Javier speaks both Spanish and English in a drowsy growl. He glowers at friends and enemies with suspicion and caution, looking like a man who has spent the better part of 35 years on the run from some inevitable doom.

Michael Douglas, on the other hand, is all polish, policy, and politeness as Robert Wakefield, an Ohio State Supreme Court Justice being groomed to replace the current U.S. drug czar (James Brolin sparkles in a small role.)  He boasts to his family about “face-to-face time” with the President even as he worries about the massive responsibility being placed on his shoulders. Douglas is just what he needs to be: weatherbeaten, slick in front of the cameras and his peers, a little too fond of cocktails in the evening to “take the edge off”. He’s about to find out that the drug problem hits closer to home than he thinks.

And Miguel Ferrer (probably the least talked-about actor on the list, but I’ve loved him since Twin Peaks) gives a perfect performance as a bitter drug seller who gets nabbed and interrogated by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman). ”You realize the futility of what you’re doing,” he sneers at the cops, “but you do it anyway.” Clearly, he’s right, and the barbs he sinks into his captors make them anxious as inevitable trouble falls upon them.

We also have Amy Irving as Wakefield’s wife, souring as she watches politics pull her husband away from the family. Erika Christensen is Wakefield’s daughter Caroline, who becomes our tour guide to the world of recreational drug use. Albert Finney is the man prepping Wakefield for his new job. Dennis Quaid plays the sleazy lawyer who protects a drug lord’s panic-stricken wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as she learns about her husband’s long-concealed criminal behavior. And the list goes on.

To Soderbergh’s credit, he avoids using a melodramatic musical score to pump up this already self-important film. That alone makes this film 100% more authentic and effective than The Contender, which depended on sentimental sweeps of the orchestra, liberal propagandizing, and making the Republican (Gary Oldman) as ugly and ill-mannered as the villain in Galaxy Quest.

So, yes, Traffic is an impressive accumulation of talents and style. Thus it is extremely entertaining. But Soderbergh is an artist. Films like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, King of the Hill, and The Limey have shown he is best at developing memorable characters and giving us stories that transcend their historical contexts. Out of Sight demonstrated his ability to set the standard for genre pictures. And this year’s Erin Brockovich proved he can take the most worn-out crowdpleasing formula and make it fresh, funny, and inspiring.

Unfortunately, Traffic falls short of the usual Soderbergh brilliance. You may agree with its message. You may be impressed with the big names and the camerawork. But this movie is stretched too thin and eventually asks us to accept some pretty ludicrous twists.

In the last half hour of the film, implausibilities begin to pile up.

1) Would expert FBI agents protecting a government witness fail to notice an unexpected visitor dressed as a waiter? If so, then the typical audience member is smarter than the F.B.I.

2) Could a high government official run out of a press conference at the White House, cross the President’s own lawn, and get into a taxi without Secret Service or frantic journalists at least attempting to follow him?

3) Would a Supreme Court Justice really think the best way to handle a family crisis is to become a vigilante, with his high profile career on the line?

4) Could a political figure’s daughter get investigated by police without it making headlines? And why does the girl suddenly start cooperating with her parents at the end, after fighting them all the way? What caused this overnight transformation?

Stephen Gaghan’s script zips right along, keeping us slightly off-balance, digging deep into information and details. He makes this long and talky picture not only entertaining for the ears, but thoroughly educational.

But many of these conversations betray the filmmakers’ desire to score political points rather than develop an engaging story.  Exchanges between the college students as they experiment with drugs sound fashioned to make moralistic points about society and families. Goofy banter between the DEA agents is not enough to make us care about them or understand them when things turn bad later. And Wakefield’s big press conference in the film’s final act becomes almost as unconvincing as that dumbfounding, fantasy-land speech that President Jeff Bridges gave at the end of The Contender.

Each of Traffic‘s stories is told with the simplicity of an hour-long prime time television show, but made to look more complicated by allowing the interruptions of ten other simple tales. One episode of television’s Law and Order or NYPD Blue offers more surprising commentary, more in-depth character development, more unpredictable plot twists than these half-baked tales. For an example of a complicated, multi-plot picture that doesn’t depend on familiar formulas, try Magnolia, Pulp Fiction, or The Cradle Will Rock.

Popular entertainment can, and always has been, a powerful platform for enlightening the public about politically-incorrect or concealed truths. You can’t fault the filmmakers for having good intentions. Some of the best films I’ve seen have opened my eyes wide to things the media has kept out of the spotlight. Oliver Stone’s JFK and Michael Mann’s The Insider are shining examples of audacity and information. But, after showing us one situation, they make us think about many others. The Insider wasn’t just about Big Tobacco; it was about the media, about integrity, about giving up one’s life for the truth, about trust. Perhaps a better example, Dead Man Walking wasn’t just about capital punishment. It was the story of a relationship, about how people from different sides of the tracks can learn to understand each other and bring about healing. It was about redemption and faith. It became a work of accomplished art.

Traffic wants to be an important movie and a work of art. It might be an important movie in what it shows us. No movie about drugs has dared to venture a condemnation of the U.S. war on drugs, and this film comes pretty darn close. It turned my stomach to hear just how outgunned we are in this struggle, with the drug lords enjoying unlimited budgets and easy-access (thanks to NAFTA’s “opening the border”). But Traffic is not by any means a great work of art. It’s too busy telling us the facts, too busy showing off its superstars, and thus it fails to develop enough believable and engaging characters. Soderbergh might have been better off making a documentary.

But then, audiences don’t flock to see documentaries. They want to see the stars.

Will these failings keep Traffic from walking away with the Best Picture Oscar this year? If I were voting, I think Erin Brockovich is the better Steven Soderbergh movie. It aims to be a good formula movie, and it achieves something even better than that. Traffic aims higher, granted, but it falls short, and while its Important Subject Matter, its Shocking Information, and its Big Stars will make it popular… it isn’t the work of art that it thinks it is.

Director – Steven Soderbergh
Writer – Stephen Gaghan, based on ”Traffik” created by Simon Moore, originally produced by Carnival Films for Channel 4 Television (Britain)
Director of photography – Peter Andrews
Editor – Stephen Mirrione
Music – Cliff Martinez
Production designer – Philip Messina
Producers – Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford
USA Films. 147 minutes. Rated R.STARRING: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Benicio Del Toro (Javier Rodriguez), Luis Guzman (Ray Castro), Dennis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Steven Bauer (Carlos Ayala), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Clifton Collins Jr. (Francisco Flores), Miguel Ferrer (Eduardo Ruiz), Topher Grace (Seth Abrahms), Amy Irving (Barbara Wakefield), Tomas Milian (General Arturo Salazar), Marisol Padilla Sanchez (Ana Sanchez), Jacob Vargas (Manolo Sanchez) and Albert Finney (Chief of Staff).


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