Steven Soderbergh has been around for quite a long time and has made a variety of different films, but in 2000, Soderbergh released a film that would be both heavily influential and controversial. Traffic is gritty, tough, emotional, and aims close to home.
Traffic is an epic tale that includes multiple story lines and characters involved one way or another with the Mexican drug trade. Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) is a Mexican police officer who finds himself and his partner tangled in a web of corruption between the sadistic General Salazar (Tomas Milian) and the notorious Tijuana Cartel. Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge from Ohio who is elected head of the Office of National Drug control. Amongst his new responsibilities, Robert is struggling to help his daughter, Caroline, with her drug addiction. Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are DEA agents who’re working together to bring down the drug lord Carlos Ayala. After his arrest, his wife, Helena (Catharine Zeta-Jones) dives deep into the underworld in order to get her husband out of prison, even to go so far as to hire a hit man (Clifton Collins Jr.) from the Tijuana Cartel to assassinate the main witness in her husband’s trial (Miguel Ferrer).
After watching this film, I felt sort of like I did after watching Syriana, although Traffic isn’t quite as difficult. Just because it isn’t as internationally intriguing as Syriana does not mean it is not as important. This is one of those films that should be shown in schools, despite it’s graphic depiction of drug use and the violence that it causes between nations.
At many points throughout the movie, the viewer gets many opportunities to observe the U.S./Mexican border. The story lines flow seamlessly from one country to the next with clever uses of lenses, filters, and cameras to signify where we are and how we should be feeling. The Mexican scenes are shot with handheld cameras with a grainy yellow filter to help the viewer feel the heat and grime of the drug underworld. The film stock of these scenes also gives them an older look that almost makes them look like scenes out of an experimental film. The Ohio and Washington D.C. scenes have a blue filter which I feel shows the coldness and artificiality of this type of government lifestyle. The scenes in San Diego appear to look the most normal, except with the reds heightened a little bit, for reasons I’m not too sure of. Needless to say, this film looks fantastic, and I think it’s rare to see this kind of attention to detail in films of this kind.
The story lines in Traffic slightly intersect, but not as much as you might expect. The point of the film is to show how this diverse group of characters play their part in the bigger story. At times you will see certain characters walking by each other or sitting in the same room, but they will never interact with anyone outside of their own story line. That is an interesting choice and works better than trying to force these characters to meet and interact with one another. For me, the most interesting story line is the Wakefield storyline because it has to do with the smaller battles that drugs cause and how they can not only tear nations apart, but also families.
There are many talented actors in this film. Benicio del Toro actually won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and it is deserved. It can be argued that his character is boring and monotone, but that is appropriate for who he is and the viewer can easily see the trouble the character is facing just by looking into his eyes. Michael Douglas also gives an incredibly moving performance, but I personally think that the scene stealer in this film is Erika Christensen, who plays Douglas’ daughter, Caroline. We never hate this character even though she puts her parents through hell. We sympathize for her and want to see her get through her troubles, even though we don’t have much hope.
Traffic can arguably be considered the first modern epic. After this film was released, we saw many films like it, for example Crash and the aforementioned Syriana. Saying this film isn’t important in both the thematic sense and the historical sense would be a very bold statement to make, but I don’t think I would meet anyone who would say that after seeing this film.
Traffic is without a doubt a modern day masterpiece and only further defines Steven Soderbergh as one of the better film makers of our time. I also stand by my point that this film should be shown in schools. It neither condemns nor supports the War on Drugs, but it certainly alludes to the fact that it can not be won. Every story line is strong and interesting, it looks beautiful, and it is true to life. I definitely recommend this film.