Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a war that can’t be won. Traffic is an emotionally intense drama, made even more so by its pseudo-documentary filming style, which creates an immediacy so keen you feel like you’re on the front lines.
Based on the haunting BBC mini-series, Traffik, which aired on PBS several years ago, Soderbergh’s film also shows the complexities of a war that has absorbed hundreds of billions of dollars, become a political hot button, altered the criminal justice system, put millions of people in jail and touched countless lives in one way or another. Despite the United States’ expenditures, however, the use of heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs continues to grow while international drug trafficking has become a multibillion-dollar global industry that is now an integral part of the world economy.
Though the film doesn’t deem to offer a solution, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (a former journalist) skillfully chart the scope of this complex social and political problem, weaving together the many threads that cross state lines and international borders and involve high-level government officials, DEA agents, drug lords, smugglers and users. These intertwining stories portray a bleak reality, and you’ll walk away convinced that the war on drugs—at least as it is currently being waged—will never be won, despite the minor promising victories.
Michael Douglas plays a conservative Ohio state Supreme Court justice who is the president’s newly appointed drug czar. Conscientious about his new position, the judge seeks out advice from politicos (Orrin Hatch has a cameo in a Georgetown cocktail-party scene), visits policing programs and travels to border towns for insight, undeterred by the exiting drug czar’s admission that he didn’t make any difference during his tenure.
Like most astute observers, the judge realizes that trying to solve this mammoth problem by talking to experts who have never been outside the beltway is an exercise in futility. He knows the score in Washington, where rhetoric is cheap and no one has the courage to tackle the real problem. When someone asks him about his new appointment, he compares Washington, D.C., to Calcutta. “You’re surrounded by beggars, but they wear $1,500 suits and don’t say please or thank you.”
The war hits home when he discovers his 16-year-old daughter, an honor student who is a national merit finalist and vice president of her class, is addicted to free-basing cocaine. “When you’re 16 it’s easier to get drugs than alcohol,” she says. So much for that miserably naïve “Just Say No” campaign.
The film understands the ironies and contradictions of the drug war. During a cocktail party, a representative from Merck boasts, “We’re in the real drug industry.” In a particularly nasty fight, the judge’s unhappy wife (Amy Irving) accuses her husband of having to down three glasses of scotch before he can sit through dinner. He accuses her of providing their daughter with a role model for self-medicating. Apart from the legality of the substances involved, what’s the difference between their habits and their daughter’s?
The most compelling story thread is not the judge and his daughter, which seems a bit contrived, but the story set in Mexico. Soderbergh’s decision to shoot those scenes in Spanish lends them even more authenticity. Benicio Del Toro plays Tijuana policeman Javier Rodriguez. He has been working with his partner and close friend (Jacob Vargas) under Mexico’s top crime fighter trying to wipe out a powerful Tijuana drug cartel. They deal first-hand with the rampant corruption and collusion by high-level Mexican officials with the country’s drug lords. It’s a type of law enforcement euphemistically described as “entrepreneurial,” which also involves kidnapping, torture and murder. Javier, the film’s most sympathetic and best-drawn character, resists the temptation of easy money, but he is trapped in an untenable situation where survival demands compromise. If anyone in this film deserves Oscar consideration it’s Del Toro, whose portrayal of a man trying to do the right thing while still surviving is riveting.
In San Diego, two undercover drug agents (the marvelous Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) work overtime trying to bring down another cartel. Their surveillance pays off when they bust a mid-level trafficker, who leads them to the real drug lord in exchange for immunity. But trying to keep their star witness alive to testify is another seemingly futile assignment. When the trafficker chides Cheadle’s character about how pointless his fight has been, you see that the agent has had similar doubts. Cheadle gives another standout performance in the film.
In La Jolla, a wealthy drug kingpin’s unsuspecting and pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) watches in horror as federal agents arrest her husband and search their house in front of their son and upscale neighbors. Jones gives a mature and sympathetic performance, until her character turns into a vile Lady MacBeth willing to do anything to maintain her posh lifestyle and protect her children. Unfortunately, this plot twist is the least credible of the film’s otherwise authentic story lines.
Soderbergh has expertly crafted a compelling mosaic that resonates gritty realism. With plots taken straight out of today’s news, his disturbing and enlightening film will make you read each drug-related headline with renewed interest and broader understanding.
Traffic (R) HHHH Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones.