Traffic (2000)

Rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sexuality.

Starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Written by Stephen Gaghan.
Distributed by USA Films.
147 minutes.

Photo ©USA Films. All rights reserved.

A Slice of Life in the Drug War

Traffic is a big big movie. At 147 minutes, it's actually too short for all the stuff it tried to cover. At the same time, though, its few weaknesses make the length seem too long. I'm not sure I can explain this. I'll try, though.

In one very large and complex movie, director Steven Soderbergh interweaves essentially three sub-plots, all related by the main theme of the war on drugs. In the first story, two dedicated Mexican policemen (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) find themselves entangled in the turf war of two major Mexican drug cartels. The second story deals with two San Diego cops' (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) attempts to bring down a rich and powerful drug importer; while he is incarcerated, his socialite wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers the nature of his business. The last story deals with an Ohio state supreme court judge's (Michael Douglas)appointment to national drug czar, and his discovery that his own daughter (Erika Christensen) is fast on her way to becoming a junkie.

This seems to be a lot to keep track of, but really it flows along very smoothly, and all the stories draw you in as the events proceed. The overall tone of the movie is gritty and realistic; nothing feels like rehearsed dialogue, and so the effect is very documentary-like. This is aided by the fact that the whole movie was apparently shot with hand-held cameras, so the picture is never really steady. This style could have detracted from the enjoyment of watching the movie, but thankfully you can get used to it.

All this style is there because the movie wants to be as believable as possible. It tackles the very real and controversial subject matter of the drug war and drug trafficking, and it tries to cover it from the supplier to the importer to the user, and includes all the forces who are trying to stop it at every step of the way. Three sub-plots may not have even been enough to cover the intended scope of the film. As such, it is very involving. This is where, perhaps, you realize that the movie could be "too short"; with all that it's trying to cover, how could it possibly cover it all and finish satisfactorily?

The strength therefore needs to come from the stories, but this is also where the weaknesses might get exposed. Of the three stories, the one involving the Mexican policemen and cartels is the most compelling and interesting. The story of the San Diego cops and the drug-importer's wife is entertaining, but taken by itself it may feel like a standard Hollywood plot. Meanwhile, the story of the drug czar and his daughter runs the risk of feeling like a lesson in a sort of Afterschool Special kind of way. By the time the movie is winding down, dissatisfaction with any of the one stories may cause the viewer to feel the movie is thus "too long."

So what can we say for sure? Traffic has many virtues, most notably the screenplay, the cinematography, and the acting. The different stories weave in and out of each other seamlessly; you never miss a beat on what's currently going on in each of them. Characters from one sometimes even cross the paths of characters from another. It's tricky, but effective. A wonderfully wise choice was made for the cinematography: each of the three story locales is shot with a different imposing tone. Mexico appears blazing, with a yellow overtone that makes you instinctively want to squint when you see it. Cincinatti, Ohio, is overall blue-ish, giving you a subdued feeling. And San Diego is bright and full of color, very eye-pleasing. Each gives you the right mood for the location and its story.

The acting is top-notch. Benicio del Toro stands out among them all. He barely speaks any English in the movie, yet you don't need to hear him speak... just looking at his face tells you how tortured he is in dealing with the dilemmas that he faces. Don Cheadle comes off as a crowd favorite, and you easily sympathize with his character. Catherine Zeta-Jones does a great job as the woman who suddenly must take control of unfamiliar territory with confidence and grace under fire. Michael Douglas is good, as always, but more noticeable may be the solid performance of Erika Christensen, who seems to have perfected the glazed-over look.

Finally, the movie hits home because of what it is portraying, and the message it seems to be sending: the drug war feels ultimately futile, but its victims and consequences can not be ignored. As long as the drug problem is around, people will valiantly battle the forces that are at its source, but perhaps more attention should be paid to its results and to ways of reaching scenarios alternative to those of watching so many lives easily ruined by drugs. There are no easy answers to this real-life problem, and Traffic, by offering up its three scenarios, supplies no easy answers either; instead, it lets you see how different lives are affected by this scourge, and challenges you to draw conclusions for yourself. In this, the movie does succeed; using all the ammunintion at its disposal, Traffic can make the audience leave the theater thinking and discussing, and that is what makes it an excellent movie.

Rating: 9/10

©Jeffrey Chen, Jan. 12, 2001