There's no denying that the US government's declared war on drugs has not yielded
the hoped for successes. Indeed, one might argue that the program has turned into the
equivalent of the Vietnam conflict that divided the country for much of the 1960s, that is,
a hopeless case that cost millions of dollars with little to show for it.
In 1989, British television addressed the issue with the well-received miniseries
TRAFFIK, a triptych about the growing of opium poppies in Pakistan, the smuggling of
drugs into London, and the effects those drugs have on individuals, particularly the addict
daughter of a government minister. Shown on PBS in the USA, TRAFFIK was one of
1990's small screen high points. Now a decade later, director Steven Soderbergh and
screenwriter Steve Gaghan have collaborated on an Americanized version called TRAFFIC.
Retaining the three-pronged plot, the writer and director have crafted a sprawling examination
of a situation that cannot easily be reduced to mere entertainment. The results are a mixed
bag, both intriguing and maddening, exciting and dull.
A large ensemble cast plays out the three films, any one of which might have made
for a fascinating feature. By combining the trio, Soderbergh and company are making a
major statement about the system that on the one hand aims to eradicate drugs but on the
other bolsters the very people responsible for the importation of illegal substances.
In one of the major plots, Benicio Del Toro is cast as Javier Rodriguez, an essentially
honest Mexican police officer who makes compromises in order to survive. The others
revolve around Michael Douglas as jurist turned government drug czar blinded by his
ambition who fails to recognize the problems in his own teenage daughter's life, and
Catherine Zeta-Jones as the upscale wife of a man accused of trafficking drugs who slowly
assumes his power in order to preserve and maintain her affluent lifestyle.
Since there is no one protagonist (except "the system") and the distinct plot strands
aren't knitted together but merely abut one another, TRAFFIC lacks a unifying dramatic
element, and that undoubtedly was the director's intent. While there's some merit in taking
that tack (and many critics have praised the film for doing so), it does keep audiences at
arm's length since there is no one person for whom they can root.
Functioning as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews),
Soderbergh favors handheld shots that constitute a documentarian immediacy. He also
coordinates each thread with distinctive hues: the Mexican sequences are shot in ochres that
create a washed-out look; the scenes with the government official and his family are lensed
in predominantly icy blues that are representative of remoteness; and the drug lord's wife's
episodes, although closer to a conventional look, are dominated by orange tones. The overall
effect can be slightly jarring at times (particularly during scene shifts), but it is a subtle camera
trick that does subliminally aid the viewer in keeping track of each plot.
Since it comes on the heels of the more commercial ERIN BROCKOVICH, TRAFFIC
demonstrates Soderbergh's range. He has a way with actors and his approach to the material
has garnered much advanced praise. I would argue, however, that Gaghan's screenplay,
while prodigious, is more problematic. Although the press notes stress that pains were taken
in the presentation of the Mexican characters, most of the Spanish-speaking roles are
villainous (with the notable exception of the charismatic Benicio Del Toro, who is a more
complex figure). The subplot revolving around the descent into degradation of the judge's
daughter is nothing that hasn't been seen before in numerous other films and TV programs,
and nothing new has been added. Even the tale of the resourceful wife who originally was
in the dark but assumes a position of power is hardly groundbreaking. In fact, the original
television miniseries handled many of these points better as those filmmakers were afforded
the luxury of six hours.
Nevertheless, TRAFFIC further points to Soderbergh's gifts as an actor's director.
In his previous films talent as diverse as Andie MacDowell, Jesse Bradford, Jennifer Lopez,
Anjanette Comer and Terrence Stamp have done some of their best work. Here, the large
cast includes incisive cameos from the likes of Salma Hayek, Benjamin Bratt, James Brolin
and Albert Finney. Michael Douglas scales back in his scenes and proves effective as the
jurist-turned-presidential advisor. Amy Irving makes an impression as his unhappy wife
while Julia Stiles-lookalike Elena Christensen plays their troubled daughter. Catherine
Zeta-Jones, who was six-months pregnant at the time of filming, delivers a nice turn as
the mild-mannered wife turned cold-blooded drug trafficker. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman
as cops who are keeping her under surveillance work well together. Special mention also
has to go to Miguel Ferrer as a snitch targeted for assassination and Topher Grace as the
baby-faced prep school student who gets Christensen's character hooked.
While I had some problems with the pacing of the film (which at close to two hours
and thirty minutes feels too long), TRAFFIC is noteworthy for raising issues about the war
on drugs and its residual effects.
Rating: B -
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.