Traffic

                  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.