USA, 2000. Rated R. 147 minutes.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Luis Guzman, Steven Bauer, Benjamin Bratt, Miguel Ferrer, Jsu Garcia, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, Amy Irving, Jacob Vargas
Writer: Stephen Gaghan, based on the miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore
Music: Cliff Martinez
Cinematographer: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
Producers: Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick
Director: Steven Soderbergh


Grade: A Commentary by Jeff Vorndam

Note: The following commentary contains spoilers.

L et me first mention what Traffic is not. It's not a message movie. It's not a sermon, nor does it expressly take a side in the issues it examines. It's also not a cynical film. Though it presents a dismaying world of internecine battles, Traffic finds rays of hope in pockets. It's not for lack of caring that the United States is losing the War of on Drugs, but lack of perspective. The news media sell an easily digestible synopsis of the problem to the public, and the politicians sell us a quick-fix solution. If it can be explained in catch phrases and five-point plans, the reasoning goes, the drug problem assumes an aura of manageability. It ceases to be an issue that bleeds into the choices we make every day, and instead becomes an isolated project for Super-cops and Czars, Task Forces and Oversight Committees. What Traffic achieves, and what makes it a great, landmark film is that it acknowledges our culpability and how at odds we are with the avowed intent to eradicate drugs. Our society creates this problem with its insatiable demand for drugs, be they heroin, alcohol, tobacco, or diet pills. We love the stuff, and refusing to look ourselves in the eye short-circuits any plans to attack the side effects. One should ask, after viewing the film, if the side effects should be attacked at all, or if efforts are better spent treating the necessary ills that accompany our thirsts.

I'm speaking in this broad sense because that's where the film is strongest. Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro and Jacob VargasI've read the complaints about the story timeline and the portrayals of certain characters, and they are not without merit, but in the end they make little difference to me because the totality of the film is so utterly moving. Some have said it's not telling us anything we didn't already know about the War on Drugs. Well, The Insider didn't tell us anything we didn't already know about smoking--which is to say, it's beside the point.

Traffic isn't a message movie, it's a movie about a state of being. It's about being hopelessly incapable of affecting real change. It's a state of besiegement, frustration, and resignation. Finally, it is a state of dogged optimism. Think about midnight baseball and what a namby-pamby solution it is. A finger in a dike that's bursting all around you. Through attention and care you might be able to protect yourself and your own, but it's more of a mental victory than an actual one. I found the ending so moving because it poetically showed how fragile our lives are, and how much sacrifice and effort were expended to gain such a small toehold on what's most important to us. Midnight baseball isn't going to solve the drug problem, but it does offer a glimmer of hope. The field and the bases and the pitcher's mound are something real that you can see and touch. Those aren't statistics, those are kids running around and playing baseball. It's significant that they're kids too, because it reminds us of the frailty of our lives, how we can't control everything and even our families are at risk. In the film, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is at least able to carve out something good for his own. Unfortunately, it's a reed facing a hurricane.
The Big Picture
ratings explained

As for the color filters, it's not that Tijuana is a jaundiced and seedy locale (and maybe it is, I've never been there), but the coloring and stock warms up the image. "This is immediate. This is where shit happens," is what the yellow filter said to me. It's a place where you're getting hands-on experience at the ground level. By contrast, the icy blue filter that accompanies Michael Douglas (a no more flattering color scheme than the yellow) connotes a separation from the goings-on--an uninvolvement. Judge Wakefield isn't informed and can't make informed choices because he's wrapped up in policies and politicians. He doesn't even know what his own daughter is up to. He's cool and buttoned-up. You might argue that the color filters are redundant, but I see them as steadily imbuing each scene with its appropriate mood, making the images last longer in my head. Traffic works so well not because of its content, but how its content is communicated, and how it manages to accrue feeling scene by scene to its magnificent finale.

Traffic's connections between its storylines and characters are more thematic than incidental. In many films with dozens of speaking parts, the writers try to dazzle you with their ability to tie everyone and everything together neatly. But in Traffic you don't get the cutesy scenario of seeing how Character A knows Character B, who happens to work for Character C, who has a beef with Character D, a neighbor of Character A. In an uncontrived and realistic (aided by director Steven Soderbergh's hand-held photography) manner, Traffic reveals a world of snarled messiness. Real accomplishments are almost impossible because the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. Without a proper view of the complexity of the situation, one's actions inevitably create more harm than good. Case in point: an arrest of a drug exporter in Mexico destabilizes the organization, allowing more narcotics to flow into the country. Policy decisions are so thorny that one could come out Traffic with the equally valid, but opposite notions that the film supports a hardline anti-drug stance and a libertarian legalization stance. This isn't a cop-out, but a recognition of the moral vagaries that surround the drug issue. We cannot isolate ourselves; drugs aren't the problem, only the symptom. The problem is the health of our society.

Commentary © June 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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