movie review by
David Ng


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Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is a fictional movie but it feels real. Using such techniques as a shaky camera, grainy film stock, and title cards telling us where we are (from Washington D.C., to Tijuana, Mexico), it so fully embraces the unpolished aesthetic that it transcends its own ugliness and attains a kind of spare beauty. Its approach to the world of illegal drugs is as literal as live television. The camera, always moving, is an observer, not an interpreter.

Traffic is loosely based on the British TV miniseries Traffik, which traced the lives of several main characters who were each involved in the drug trade. Soderbergh’s Traffic, set in the U.S. and Mexico, juggles four separate stories that at first have nothing to do with each other but which slowly reveal ties to an influential Tijuana-based cartel. Scripted by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic builds its suspense through momentum rather than situation: its most powerful moments are the transitions between stories. Considered separately, each narrative could barely sustain itself, but situated as they are, their interlocking structure is intriguingly complex. At times, Gaghan’s screenplay is preachy, and its final, downbeat moral is a forgone conclusion. Traffic only reaches greatness at its stylistic extremes, when it’s frenetically racing between stories, or when it stops to ponder an anguished face.

Soderbergh wastes little time establishing the messiness of the war against drugs in which the good guys are always stepping on each other. The movie opens on a stretch of Tijuana desert where Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner seize a truck filled with cocaine. Their efforts are soon halted by the arrival of more cops who hijack the criminals and their supply and leave Javier and his partner empty handed in the middle of the desert. We cut to San Diego where two undercover DEA officers (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) are about to bust a major smuggling operation. Just at the right moment, a flock of FBI agents bursts in, blowing their cover and setting off a violent shoot-out. The smugglers work for a major dealer, a wealthy La Jolla businessman whose subsequent arrest draws his pregnant wife, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), into a war between cartels.

Soderbergh loves dealing in complicated, ambiguous personalities. The Benicio Del Toro character neither comes across as honest nor corrupt. In one scene we see him extorting a couple of American tourists who’ve lost their car. We later learn that this is how Mexican cops must survive on their pitiful salary. His cheeky reticence is his modus operandi, and it works well for him. He allies himself with the Mexican drug official General Salazar, but he soon suspects that Salazar, who acts more like a drug kingpin than a government official, might be working for a cartel. On the other side of the border, Helena (Zeta-Jones) barely has time to register shock. Determined to protect her affluent lifestyle, she hires a hitman to take out the major witness in the case against her husband. Perfectly cast, Zeta-Jones is maternal and conniving. She’ll deal with a major drug lord who can help her free her husband, but she won’t touch the cocaine that will make it possible. "I’m six months pregnant," she matter-of-factly states.

Heading the U.S. effort against illegal drugs is the newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) who arrives in Washington with healthy skepticism but soon finds himself on the front lines when he learns that his daughter is a drug addict. Arguing with his wife (Amy Irving) who has kept it a secret from him, Douglas gradually reveals the levels of denial in his character, from his wife’s early experimenting ("Let’s call it what it really is" is her frustrated retort) to his daughter’s suspicious friends whose affluence gives them unfettered access to narcotics. If the Wakefield (Douglas) is too much a symbol of our government’s ignorance, then Soderbergh deserves credit for filling his scenes in with wry humor. Flanked by DEA bureaucrats on his private jet, Wakefield hears only silence when he exhorts them to "think outside the box." Back in Washington, senators and congressmen seek his backing on various drug bills and agendas. In palatial dining rooms, they socialize, drink wine, and shake hands. The joke is that the war against drugs is as backhanded and lucrative as the trade itself. Unable to get a grip on his impossible job, Wakefield is at the end of his patience when his daughter disappears from her rehabilitation clinic, sending him over the edge on a one-man vigilante mission.

With its bustling, noisy panorama of faces (there are over a hundred speaking parts), Traffic is, in the words of Soderbergh, "The French Connection crossed with Nashville." But in terms of substance, it’s thinner than either of its predecessors. The stories, while impressively acted and directed, are too obviously the conceit of a screenwriter, and they seldom reveal anything we don’t already know -- or suspect. Soderbergh seems to realize this and turns the movie into an exercise in style. Stories are connected through incidental sounds and cues. A car explosion in one story summons a fire truck that passes key characters in another story. The U.S.-Mexico border, with its check point traffic backed up for miles, acts as a kind of waiting room in which unrelated characters collide as they wait to cross to the other side. Moving like a wild, impatient animal, Traffic is always exciting to watch. And if we come away with less than we expected, we can’t deny Soderbergh’s ability to make a familiar subject feel, for however long, breathtakingly alive.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]