is a film with the smell of Oscar all over it. It comes as a bookend
to Steven Soderberg’s previous film, ERIN BROKOVICH. That one revolved
around a star, Julia Roberts, and her sense of social justice. This
one revolves around three interlocking stories, a host of characters and
their immersion in very different aspects of the international traffic
in drugs. Unlike the drugs, justice is in short supply.
Much has been made about TRAFFIC as a fresh, honest, non-preachy look at the drug problem. Although true, this is best taken as a blunt reminder of how so much of what hear and see about the “drug problem” is bunk, or worse. The entire metaphor of a “war” on drugs is a gross exaggeration and distortion. It disregards human problems and needs for military campaign rhetoric. The “war” metaphor, like the “just say no” advice of former President Reagan, quickly degenerates into political posturing for the sound bite era as we discover how little connection these metaphors and maxims have to the realities of those who produce, distribute, or consume the drugs. Soderberg makes this clear in the first hour of his film with three interlocking stories that introduce us to 1) the “war” in Mexico and the porous line between those charged with stopping the traffic and those determined to expand it, 2) the users and the political stewards of the “war” through the Wakefield family of Ohio: dad is nominated to be the new drug czar in Washington, while daughter is risking her life in a haze of anger-fueled crack cocaine and heroin addiction, and finally, 3) the big suppliers whom we meet through Carl Ayala, a San Diego “businessman” and his wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Carl gets busted and Helena, his wife, has to decide whether her moral outrage outweighs her passionate love for the good life he has made possible for her. What makes this multiple-character, parallel-plot work so well is that no one is quite what we expect them to be. Michael Douglas, as the new drug czar, embodies this vividly through his discovery that you cannot wage war on your own family. His own daughter makes sure he learns that lesson well. But equally compelling is the stunning performance by Benicio del Toro, who plays Javier Roderiquez, a Mexican cop who cuts his way through several levels of hypocrisy and double-crosses, looking as if he is ready to sell out at any minute and yet never even dreaming of doing so. His is an extraordinary performance that deserves an Oscar of its own.
Soderberg has earned comparison with Robert Altman for the use of overlapping dialogue and multiple plot lines, but Altman typically views a more neatly stratified slice of life, freed of the singular, consuming bond that brings all the characters in Soderberg’s together. A more apt parallel would be to John Sayles who has pioneered the use of ensemble acting and parallel plots to examine social issues with complexity and depth in EIGHT MEN OUT, CITY OF HOPE and LONE STAR, among others. Like Sayles, Soderberg presents a vivid sense of how class, race, nationality and even gender play out within his chosen arena. TRAFFIC is not to be missed; it not only serves as a proof of the failure of the “war on drugs” metaphor, and mentality, it is a remarkably compelling film. Looking at movies that look at the world, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Bill Nichols.
c 2001 Bill Nichols