Twenty-five years after Vietnam, America is still at war. This time the enemy is drugs, or more appropriately, the people who make, dispense and use them. If we are to believe everything we see and read, the war is being lost.
The reasons are as various as the plot threads that make up the fabric of “Traffic,” a fascinating new film by director Steven Soderbergh. Based on the BBC series, Soderbergh’s film doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Instead, he examines the effects the war has on several groups of people.
Soderbergh has become an amazing filmmaker, one who possesses a true, unique vision that is like no other. He has matured with each film, becoming one of our most assured and daring directors. Soderbergh also creates enduring entertainment, films that stay with you long after you leave the theater.
“Traffic” is such a film, a marvelous kitsch of style and substance, perfectly blended into a thrilling drama that is sharp, smart and sassy. Here’s a film that has lots to say about the problem, but avoids preaching. Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay never moralizes. He cuts through a cross-section of the epidemic to expose some harsh truths.
Most of the time, the truth is ugly. “Traffic” takes us places most of us would never go. It shows us things that horrify us. It takes us on a trip where all roads come to a dead end. That’s the beauty of “Traffic.” It doesn’t really end, but reflects the continuing struggles of those involved. Happy endings are for fairytales. This is real life.
Soderbergh has picked the perfect cast to tell his cautionary tale. “Traffic” features flawless performances from all involved. Michael Douglas is a raw nerve as Robert Wakefield, the new United States Drug Czar, a man so self-involved with the war on drugs that he doesn’t even realize that it has hit home. Newcomer Erika Christensen is devastating as Wakefield’s perfect daughter Caroline, whose descent into hell goes unnoticed by her father.
Gaghan’s screenplay is extremely telling. Wakefield falsely believes that a privileged life will keep his daughter safe from drugs. He’s wrong. As Caroline later explains at an AA meeting, she doesn’t drink much because at her age drugs are easier to get. Just how easy is made radically clear as Caroline slips deeper and deeper into addiction.
How can Wakefield wage the war on drugs when he can’t even recognize the symptoms. His personal story is told against that of several others. The most interesting takes place in Mexico, where we follow two hard-working cops played by Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas. When we first meet them, they are intercepting a drug shipment. Their heroics are short lived when a local army general decides to take the prize for himself.
Del Toro has really matured as an actor. I remember his earlier work, and I wasn’t that impressed. He’s outstanding as Javier Rodriguez, a cop who desperately wants to do the right thing even if his current situation doesn’t permit it. Watching Del Toro in “Traffic” is like being given the opportunity to be the fly on the wall. His performance is so natural, so honest you feel like you’ve stumbled into his character’s life.
On the other side of the border in San Diego, socialite Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is shocked to discover that her coveted lifestyle is the byproduct of drug money. When her husband (Steven Bauer) is arrested by the DEA, Helena slowly wises up to her situation. Zeta-Jones is terrific as a woman who goes from being a naive wife to a ruthless businesswoman in just a matter of days.
Hot on her trail are two DEA agents, played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, and lawyer Dennis Quaid, who sees Helena’s open nest as an invitation to move in on her husband’s territory. Each of their stories are filled with murder and betrayal, revenge and double-crosses.
In order to keep all of this in synch, Soderbergh films each plot thread with a different technique. The Mexico scenes are awash in sepia, while the home life of Caroline is icy blue. The scenes in San Diego are postcard pretty, while the Washington D.C. scenes look washed out and realistic. At first the cinematography of Peter Andrews is distracting, but once you get into the groove, it all makes sense. Once the film was over, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“Traffic” emerges as a film of immense passion. The raw energy that circulates through every scene makes the characters and dialogue spark. The screenplay doesn’t force us to take sides. It allows us to pay witness without judging. That honesty is rare, especially in a film that is about something. Most filmmakers would have lined the film with artificial trappings and a feel-good ending.
You may not feel good walking out of “Traffic,” but you will feel like you’ve wisely invested your time.
Soderbergh’s distinctive cinematography survives the digital process intact. No artifacts or noise here. Instead, look for sharp, penetrating images, plus bold earth tones and superior blacks that never waver. The colors are memorable and realistic (when they’re supposed to be), with no bleeding or fading, while the flesh tones look sensational. The different tones and hues never throw the transfer for a loop. Whites and shadows are clean, while depth of field and attention to detail remains impressive. If your local theater projectionist had a hard time keeping “Traffic” in focus, here’s your chance to see the film as it was intended.
5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
2.0 Dolby Digital Surround
Expressive 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround soundtrack, with strong basses, a powerful dialogue mix and surround effects that constantly put you in the middle of the action. Rear speakers come alive with bursts of music and subtle ambient noise, while the front sound stage sounds exact. left-to-right stereo split is on the money, while the front-to rear spatial split gives the impression of movement with being obvious. Middle and high ends are clean with no noise or hiss.
Closed Captions in English for the Hard of Hearing
Subtitles in French and Spanish
“Inside Traffic,” a 20-minute behind-the-scenes documentary featuring interviews with the cast and crew, plus insight into the process of making the film. Okay, but hardly definitive.
Photo Gallery, with a cross assortment of stills from the film and behind-the-scenes shots. Why do studios insist on putting stills from the film in a gallery? One of the beauties of DVD is being able to freeze frame any image in the film, so this addition is basically redundant
An assortment of theatrical trailers (one in German language) and television spots (covering the critical acclaim of the film).
Traditional main and scene access menus, with a healthy selection of chapter stops.
PROGNOSIS: Will Live
It’s surprising that such an important film would find its way to DVD with hardly any extras. The documentary is okay but no big deal (HBO First Looks are more incisive), but where’s the audio commentary with director Steven Soderbergh, or even the talent and crew bios? The lack of features makes me suspect that USA Home Entertainment is holding back for a Special Edition down the line.
$26.99/Rated R/147 Minutes/Color/68 Chapter Stops/Keepcase
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
BIRTH DATE: 2000
HMO: USA Home Entertainment