Criterion Project #3: TRAFFIC (2000)

The Criterion project rolls along with Steven Soderbergh’s sobering, star-studded Academy Award winning drug saga, Traffic.


Year: 2000

Director: Steven Soderbergh

A brief synopsis from Google:

A look at America’s war on drugs through several interconnected stories: Ohio’s Supreme Court judge is appointed as the nation’s Drug Tsar, unaware that his own daughter is a heroin addict, two DEA agents pursue the wife of a jailed drugs baron who seeks to control his lucrative business, and a Mexican cop takes a lone stand against the powerful cartels in his community.

I’d bet cold hard cash that I haven’t seen this film since it came out and, truth be told, I wasn’t really looking forward to re-visiting it. Which isn’t to say I dislike the film. I have immense respect for the acting (Benicio del Toro is incredible in this) and the story’s construction, pacing, and editing in particular. Stitching together semi-connected stories is rarely done well but it’s excellently accomplished here and each separate story has a series of subplots functioning concurrently with the primary storyline (which don’t all stick their landing).

And thanks goes to the script (I’m coming back to this) and editing for making the engine go. Soderbergh deftly bounces between stories (in a formative way – I’ll get back to this shortly as well) with razor-sharp pacing that allows each story to gel together. There’s just a fantastic flow to this film which helps the running time (141 minutes) feel much shorter. It’s no wonder why Traffic won Oscars for Best Director and Best Editing in 2001.

All that being said, this film has not aged well.

It’s a narrative and stylistic sledgehammer, and not in the “wake-up call” or “scared straight” kind of way. This is an issue of the script (which won Stephen Gaghan the Academy Award). The story is out of touch with the times and reductive in its presentation of the drug war, particularly the sections involving newly appointed governmental Drug Tsar, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), and his addicted teenage daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen).

This plot presents both sides of the coin living under the same roof. Casting Douglas in this role, with his authoritative presence and boiling temper, helps to ratchet up the tension. But the problem is….that’s the story. Dad’s bending over backwards and fumbling around trying to lead (or even understand) the battle against drugs while his own daughter slowly dies from drug abuse.

Soderbergh would have us think he’s commenting on social class – drugs affect the privileged and the poor alike – but it’s handled with all of the grace of bodybuilder at a ballet recital. Topher Grace’s stuck-up, rich prep school boyfriend character makes an impassioned speech to Michael Douglas’ beaurocratic stiff about systemic racism that lands about as softly as a lead cannonball (and is quickly dismissed). It’s far too heavy-handed, which is a script problem that never shakes itself out.

Naturally, being from the year 2000, the film is dated. More so considering we live in a post-“The Wire” world.

Watching Traffic again was like being transported back in time to the earliest days of the war on drugs, and this film’s mission statement is to accentuate the “war” part, which was definitely policy in America into the 2000’s.

The script looks at the issue from several different viewpoints – US drug enforcement, Mexican police, politicians, users, suppliers, and sellers. And in case you look away and miss a shift from Mexico to the US in the storytelling, Soderbergh telegraphs the location with either a blinding amber filter in Mexico or a grating blue one in the United States.

And this is the crux of the issue – at no point is there any subtlety employed. Soderbergh tried to make a gritty encapsulation of the war on drugs at the turn of the millennium but it feels like a D.A.R.E. poster with an Instagram filter. The color palettes are a gimmicky device and a pretty clumsy tool for someone as talented as Soderbergh, which is disappointing.

And thematically, it’s not much better. Here’s what I gathered from this film’s perspective: the drug cycle is self-perpetuating. Remove one dealer/user/supplier/enforcer and another will take its place. Simple, and simplistic. Traffic was to drugs what Crash (2004) was to racism (and I swear to you I never intended to unite the terms “traffic” and “crash” for punny reasons, it’s just one of nature’s miracles).

And I’ll admit that might be a little harsh. Traffic is leaps and bounds ahead of Crash from a quality film standpoint, but they each handle their respective issues poorly. These are difficult problems to tackle in any medium, let alone a big, star-studded, multi-million dollar Hollywood film. They paint dark pictures of their subject material and then stumble through the conjecture.

What belies the bleakness in front of the camera, though, is an almost optimistic conclusion. Yes, fighting the drug war is losing battle and there are casualties on both sides. However, at the end of the film the only characters who have learned something are the government agents, while everyone else goes about their business. The ending intones that the “good guys” aren’t going to stop, that they’ve become smarter or more focused through their experiences. **Spoilers** At the very end, despite his partner and friend (Luis Guzman) being murdered just minutes earlier, Don Cheadle’s DEA agent is shown planting a wire in a drug smuggler’s home and smirking with delight.

Does that seem pessimistic about going forward with the “war”?

In its own time, Traffic was an expertly crafted film with fantastic performances and a gritty script. Time certainly takes no prisoners and it hasn’t been kind to this film. Watch it for the performances alone and you’ll be riveted throughout, but take its message with a grain of salt.

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