review by Cynthia Fuchs, 5 January 2001

Really angry about a lot of stuff

Traffic's first scene is tense. Creepy crawly tense. I mean, it's not like the beginning of an action movie, all speedy cuts and craning cameras. Instead, it's working a subtler nerve, alternating between extreme long shots of a seared-white desertscape and shots of men in trucks that are almost unreadably close. Titled "Mexico, 20 miles southeast of Tijuana," this restless opening finally pauses to give up a story -- two men wait in their car, then stop and seize a truck loaded with drugs. Proud of their work, Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) head off down the long dusty road back to town. But within seconds, they're turning the truck over to the local Mr. Big Stuff, one General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who comes equipped with a pack of armed and surly soldiers. As it turns out, though Javier and Manolo are themselves cops, they have precious little sway when it comes to drug traffic.

This is the grand lesson of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, which widens its focus exponentially following its first blazing-lonely-desert scene. As if a force unto themselves, beyond all legal, social, moral, or even political powers, drugs cross borders, produce wealth, cost lives. Drugs are a system, and they never stop moving.

At once indignant and sad, epic and detailed, Soderbergh's movie has already won critics' prizes and spots on ten-best lists. At first glance, it looks to be about as different from his first release of this year, Erin Brockovich, as it can be. Where the Julia Roberts vehicle drives straight -- and knowingly -- into a carwreck of Happy Hollywoodness, the new film is all twisty and turny and irritable. The primary makers -- Soderbergh, producer Laura Bickford, and writer Stephen Gaghan, all working from a base structure borrowed from Simon Moore's 1989 British television miniseries, Traffik -- are sure of their intentions. They mean to reveal the failures of the U.S. drug wars as systemic, the militaristic rhetoric as empty, even cynical promise-making. Their hearts are surely in the right place -- if there's a worthier project for an aggressively marketed, must-see Movie Event, I don't know it. And to this end, the fact that Traffic has already won critics' prizes and spots on year-end best lists is probably a good thing, even if the movie itself succumbs to a few too many clichés and falls somewhat short of its own high-minded goals.

Traffic is often difficult and upsetting, interweaving three fragmented storylines, and raw surveillance-camera stylishness, a large cast, and two languages (the Mexican characters speak Spanish, at the director's insistence that the movie be "realistic"). At times, the movie takes proficient aim (as when you watch Javier and Manolo sweat out the General's ambush, or when you watch Senator Orrin Hatch act as if he's at a DC mucky-muck party, obviously not knowing what kind of raging anti-government tract he's lent his name and face to), but at others, it gestures broadly and less effectively, attempting to convey the horrific sprawl of the drug biz. Where it surely feels pleasant to watch Roberts stick it to a clearly villainous Corporate America, Traffic never lets you forget that such moral delineations are 1) simplistic, and 2) delusional. In Traffic, good news is most always accompanied by plenty of bad.

But this doesn't mean that the (relative) good guys don't try like hell to set things right. Javier and Manolo see where they stand in the scheme of things, but they persist, imagining that they're always just a step away from bringing down the big cheese or maybe just the asshole dealer on the corner -- they just want to do something. Their moral counterparts north of the border (in San Diego, to be exact) are DEA Agents Montel (the superb Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman), introduced undercover. They're setting up a deal with a mid-level sleazeball, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer, whose under-appreciated gifts have never been better used). When he stalls, Ray tells bad jokes, trying to cut tension. But Montel is out of patience, or maybe just a little too deep into his performance: he blurts out, corny thug-style, "We gonna move some weight or what?" Suddenly, the bust is trashed by the arrival of the local law. Here agin, the film shows the consequences of non-coordination and territorial dick-swinging. Montel and Ray do take Ruiz, however, which means that they have a route to their next-up target, a dealer who lives the upscale life in La Jolla, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Increment by increment -- it's the only way to make a dent, or rather, to imagine that you're making one.

All this compromising underlines the film's most repeated theme, that drugs are everywhere responsibility falls nowhere. It's in this context that the third narrative strand develops. Ohio Supreme Court Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed by the President as the new Anti-Drug Czar -- pending Congressional approval -- a gig that he takes seriously enough that he undertakes to educate himself about the traffic from across the border. Wakefield's plot is far and away the film's weakest. You hardly see Wakefield at work, in a courtroom, which suggests that the bulk of his time -- especially after the nod from the President -- is comprised of taking meetings and socializing. His seething, resentful wife Barbara (Amy Irving) observes his own addictions -- to power, to Scotch, to a self-preserving distance from her -- but he won't own his culpability in the relationship, much less in his daughter Caroline's (Erika Christensen) self-destructive choices. Caroline is so miserable, she can't see straight -- the film introduces her partying with her Cincinnati Country Day School classmates, including her slimy, smart-ass boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace), who convinces her to smoke a little crack so he can jump her bones. She agrees. She doesn't care.

Of course, she has no reason to care. Her distance from the Mexican desert and Tijuana streets that open the film is, I suppose, a testament to the daunting scope of drug traffic -- look, cocaine slips by the border guards in some smalltime asshole's floorboards, wends its way to underclass streets and -- omigod -- the bourgie-burbs too. But more urgently, the distance between Caroline and Manolo is about money. Where she has it to burn, he never has enough, but instead, has relentlessly hard choices to make, every day. And while Caroline's tragedy is treated in play-by-play, soap-operatic detail, Manolo's appears in bits and pieces, mostly via Javier's second-hand information-gathering. Granted, the movie is first addressing its U.S. audience, and more specifically, that audience who appreciates Soderbergh's edgy, pre-Brockovich work (in particular, his best film to date, The Limey, or his slyest, Out of Sight), which means that its emotional focus will be the wealthy, straight-A student, the character who -- according to Soderbergh -- viewers don't expect to see so f*cked up.

But still... Caroline is actually less a full-blown character than a device to extend her father's education. It's probably useful to show that, because this power-player doesn't need to know much about street crime and drug trade, he won't, unless, of course, he's forced to. But the fact that forcing takes the form of Caroline's crack-and-heroin addiction is not a little cloying. It's bad enough to see her looking pale and hollow-eyed under the influence, but it's annoying when she goes jonesing over to the "bad part of town," where she solicits the company of older men -- notably, a naked black one and a white one in a suit (you do the math) -- in order to feed her nasty habit. These scenes are yucky, not because they convey the sheer awfulness of the girl's situation, but because they're overkill markers of her Descent Into Hades via sexual predations. Perhaps worse, the scenes' full significance only comes clear when daddy -- suddenly turned all vigilante and shit -- shows up and then collapses at the sight of his strung out baby girl. This is straight-up drug war propaganda: pot-puffing leads this angelic child directly and inevitably to junkie-whoredom and with well-muscled black men, no less.

What's most troubling about such fearsome silliness is that it detracts from what the film does well, that is, showing nuanced and complicated emotional reactions to situations where the moral ground is all but impossible to see. The non-resolution to Caroline's storyline involves her halting, uncertain confession: "I guess I'm angry. I mean, I think I'm really angry about a lot of stuff, but I don't know what exactly." For me, this is Traffic's most profound moment of articulation -- or maybe it's inarticulation. That this girl can be so unself-conscious about her feelings and her responsibilities is a function of her life experience. Like her father, Caroline is an uninterested bystander to her own life, until she's forced to look, hard. This theme repeats again and again in the film, perhaps most compellingly for the busted dealer Carlos's wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When he's hauled out of their swank white home in handcuffs, she's undone, a single mother pregnant with a second child, alone and absolutely horrified that her opulent life has been financed by such nefarious means. Discovering that she can't turn to her husband's none-too-bright lawyer (Dennis Quaid), it's not long before Helena starts making some serious decisions, like arranging a contract on the primary witness against her husband -- who just happens to be that weaselly Ruiz.

And this brings us back to Montel and Ray, who, of all the film's many characters, have the most hard-earned and acute understanding of where they've been and where they're headed -- as U.S. government agents, they see the traffic's endless movement. As Montel, Cheadle gives an unnerving, brilliant performance, granting access to a guy who knows what he thinks is right, but can't even begin to make the world resemble that ideal. At one point Montel and Ray are staking out Helena's place, hiding across the street in one of those vans that stake-out cops always use. For a moment, things look promising, and Ray is almost giddy when he suggest that they might get to bust some "white people." It's rendered a joke in the movie, but his sentiment is also pretty much the film's point. Javier and Manolo, Ray and Montel toil away, day after day, hoping to get a handle on how the system works, how the product continues to move despite their best efforts. But it's too vast, too distant, and too essential to the machinations of national governments and international businesses. Traffic keeps moving.

Directed by:
Steven Soderbergh

Michael Douglas
Don Cheadle
Benicio Del Toro
Luis Guzman
Dennis Quaid
Catherine Zeta-Jones

Written by:
Stephen Gaghan





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