Published Dec 01, 2000Steven Soderbergh's new film, "Traffic," is about the thriving drug trade between Mexico and the U.S., and it's got the scope of an epic (with lots of locations ranging from Tijuana to Washington D.C.) and a sprawling list of cast members including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Benicio del Toro, and Don Cheadle. It's a got the pedigree of a Hollywood blockbuster, especially with Soderbergh hot off his Erin Brockovich success, but the attitude and aesthetics are 100 percent indie. The opening images of a drug bust in the Mexican desert are shot in gritty, stuttered shaky-cam with harsh hues of scorched amber, and the rest of the film maintains this stylized documentary approach (the American scenes are shot in an icy blue palette). "Traffic" gives us a view of the war on drugs that's long overdue in American movies this is a frank admission of the hypocrisy and existential futility of it all.
The narrative consists of three or four stories (they deliberately blur together after a while) that combine personal, political, and social aspects of the drug culture. Michael Douglas plays a judge appointed to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy and he prides himself on going to the "front lines" at the Mexican border to make sure he's not deceiving himself about the amount of narcotics that are getting through. In the meantime his teenage daughter back in Cincinnati has just learned how to free-base and is sporting pupils the size of pans. This old chestnut of an irony may be somewhat groan-worthy, but Soderbergh uses the realism and immediacy of each scene as a buffer against such moments of contrivance.
The other key piece of this morally ambiguous puzzle involves a Mexican police officer, played by Benicio del Toro, who's employed by an army General to eliminate a specific drug cartel from Tijuana. Del Toro's character is content to work within a certain level of corruption, as long as he sees some objective good coming of it. What happens to him, and most of the other characters in various other plot lines, is that he slowly begins to comprehend the utter lack of progress inherent in his enterprise, and how his good motivations are just a drop in a very dry bucket (he settles for a small personal victory a bittersweet moment of grace that gives the film it's poignant final image). Soderbergh has said that "Traffic" is a combination of "Nashville" and "The French Connection," but he and his screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, have actually created a good old-fashioned existentialist drama. Any of the well-intentioned cops or politicians in the film just don't understand that, as Miguel Ferrer's character flatly explains, "the drug war has been fought and lost." They keep on fighting the uphill battle because, like the pawns in a Kafka novel or a play by Beckett, they can't see or comprehend the immutability of the system that will perpetuate itself long after their efforts have been forgotten.