Traffic Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001


Traffic poster

In its single largest market in the world, the use of illegal drugs is estimated to kill 55 Americans per day, both directly and indirectly, at a cost to society of $18 million per day. The drug trade is responsible for approximately one-quarter to one-half of all homicides committed, and in some urban centers, up to three-quarters of arrestees will test positive for an illicit substance. Over the past two decades, successive administrations have attempted to tackle the scourge of the illicit drug trade through a variety of means, though seemingly to no avail.

During the Eighties, with the increasing incidence of drug abuse and drug-related crimes being fueled by cocaine and its potent new 'crack' derivative, President Ronald Reagan declared a 'war on drugs', which was aimed at curbing the demand side of America's drug problem. The first volley fired by the Reagan administration was the much-maligned 'Just Say No' campaign spearheaded by First Lady Nancy Reagan, which was primarily focused on preventing children from growing up into drug abusers. Not surprisingly, the 'Just Say No' only made a minor dent in 'casual' drug use, as there were still at least 20-40 million Americans using drugs by the end of the campaign.

The reigns were then passed on to George Bush, who with the help of his 'drug czar' William J. Bennett of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, outlined an $8 billion package of initiatives that would build on the efforts of the Reagan Administration to eradicate drug use. Unfortunately, Bush made the same mistake as the outgoing administration by putting emphasis on the demand side of the equation, setting its sights on reducing 'casual' drug use. Efforts were primarily focused on putting the drug users in jail, with little or no effort on providing the necessary infrastructure for effective treatment programs, effective education and prevention programs, or dealing with the social problem that a number of experts had identified as the root cause of America's rampant drug use-- poverty.

The next wrinkle in America's 'war on drugs' came with focusing on the supply side of the equation, with initiatives aimed at reducing the flow of drugs into the country. Unfortunately, despite increased budgets for interdiction activities, drug enforcement efforts were only able to successfully intercept 13-40% of the inbound volume, which had a negligible effect on wholesale prices.

Michael Douglas

Furthermore, provision of military aid to the top cocaine-producing countries, such as Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru was ineffectual, which was primarily due to economics. Drugs are probably the most successful cash crop, thanks to its apparently unending demand and the astronomical margins derived from their sale. It should come as no surprise that many regions are dependent on the drug trade for their local economy, which is being unintentionally supported by the drug users of the United States, the largest consumer of illicit drugs worldwide. It has been estimated that in such countries, at least 6% of the economy is a direct result of the narcotics trade, and the influx of billions of dollars of drug money has helped countries such as Colombia weather the recent economic downturns in South America. In addition, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic lifelines that it had provided during the Cold War, the guerilla armies of Marxist revolutionary groups have increasingly turned to the drug trade to finance their ongoing battles against governments. Finally, the tentacles of the drug cartels have reached into every branch and level in the governments of drug-producing nations, further hindering the ability for the 'war on drugs' to curtail the drug trade.

Though the Bush campaign claimed that it had reduced overall cocaine use by 22% in 1992, this reduction mainly came from middle class households, which may have been the result of the drug falling 'out of fashion'. Among the poorer households, more people used cocaine, crack, and heroin than before the 'war on drugs', and drug-related crime was at an all-time high. Furthermore, the situation did not markedly improve under the Clinton administration, which applied successive budget cuts to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, thereby reducing staffing levels in both enforcement and interdiction activities.

Benicio Del Toro

Thus, twenty years after the first salvos were fired in the 'war on drugs', it is questionable whether the efforts of three administrations have made any difference in stemming the tide of illicit drugs into the United States. This is the contention put forth in the Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich") film "Traffic". Based on the 1989 British miniseries "Traffik", which consisted of a series of vignettes that took place along the entire illicit drug 'supply chain' (from the grower in Pakistan to the user in England), "Traffic" presents a thought-provoking cross-section of the drug trade in the United States.

In the space of two-and-a-half hours, "Traffic" illustrates how the drug trade has insidiously infiltrated all aspects of American society, as well as how the 'war on drugs' has been compromised at every step. Unfortunately, this ensemble piece plays out more like a clinical dissection of the issue, and the emotional wallop of the year's other 'anti-drug' film, "Requiem for a Dream", remains conspicuously absent. But despite the film's vacillating ability to engage audience interest, "Traffic" still remains a remarkable achievement, an ambitiously-executed commentary on the sad state of affairs in America's 'war on drugs'.

The guided tour of America's drug trade is presented through three interwoven story lines. The first revolves around Tijuana-based police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro of "Way of the Gun") and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas of "Selena"), who find their loyalties and personal integrity tested when they are asked to join a seemingly above-the-law anti-drug campaign being waged by Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian of "Amistad"), a general with the Mexican army. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas of "The Wonder Boys") is appointed as the country's new 'drug czar', unaware that his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) and her prep-school chums have been experimenting with freebase cocaine. Finally, in San Diego, DEA agent Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle, seen recently in "The Family Man") and his partner Ray Castro (Luis Guzman of "Magnolia") hope to snag top-dog Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) by turning one of his lieutenants (Miguel Ferrer of "Twin Peaks" fame) into state's evidence. Unfortunately, their efforts are jeopardized when Carlos' pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones of "Entrapment") decides to take matters into her own hands to secure his release.

Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman

Through these three subplots, Soderbergh paints a collage of the pervasive influence of illicit drugs, both on the users, who will go to any lengths to feed their addiction, and on their families and friends, who must deal with the often-tragic consequences. While the imagery is not as graphic or gruesome as what is seen in the brutal finale of "Requiem for a Dream", the toll of addiction is effectively conveyed in the downward spiral that Caroline Wakefield experiences, a situation that makes her father question the slogans and watered-down policies that he is ultimately responsible for. Meanwhile, Helena discovers that it is very difficult to escape from the obligations arising from her husband's illicit business activities, and finds that the only way to safeguard her family from her husband's former business partners is to continue his work.

In addition, the script by Stephen Gaghan ("The Rules of Engagement") also makes some pointed observations about how the sheer scope of the drug trade makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies to effectively deal with it. With interdiction activities only able to seize a small fraction of the illicit drugs that are transported across the Mexican-US border on a daily basis, the odds are clearly in favor of the drug cartels, who treat the small number of stopped shipments as a 'cost of doing business'. In addition, the two pairs of law enforcement officers on both sides of the border each discover that they have become mere pawns of the drug lords-- by bringing one cartel to its knees, they are unwittingly abetting the other cartels to increase their market share. Unfortunately, the tactics of the 'war on drugs' are primarily aimed at dealing with the symptoms of deep-seated issues within society, and unless those problems are dealt with, the drug trade will continue to prosper.

Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones

By the end of the two-and-a-half hour film, there are no easy answers provided. There are some small victories, which are almost Pyrrhic considering the toll that they have taken on the survivors. But overall, the resolution of "Traffic" is littered with casualties, as characters are ultimately destroyed while fighting a war that they are ill-equipped to handle. There is some room for optimism though, as the ones who do survive resolve to carry on the seemingly futile battle, in the hopes that the 'war on drugs' is ultimately winnable. However, as the Gaghan script so pointedly illustrates, the standard operating practices of the past two decades must be seriously revisited in order to effect real change.

Acting as the film's cinematographer (under the name 'Peter Andrews'), Soderbergh uses his distinct visual style to differentiate the competing subplots. Each of the subplots have their own distinct visual texture, such that it is very easy for the audience to follow along as the film jumps between settings: overexposed and gritty yellows for the scenes in Mexico, bluish tint for the Wakefield story line in Cincinnati, and 'normal' lensing for the action in San Diego. In addition, Soderbergh continues his long-standing penchant for heavy handheld camerawork, giving the film a sense of heightened urgency, as well as to lend a look of documentary-like cinéma-verité to the proceedings.

Soderbergh has also attracted a number of outstanding actors to this ensemble piece. Michael Douglas offers a strong characterization and moving performance of a man who finds himself questioning assumptions and assertions on the drug trade after his own family falls victim to it. The new Mrs. Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, does a decent turn as a society-wife-turned-drug-dealer, though the script shortchanges her character's dramatic transformation. Benicio Del Toro delivers his best performance ever as an earnest cop who does his best to navigate the corrupt Mexican law enforcement setting with his moral compass intact. And the most animated performances would have to go to Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, whose characters' easygoing and playful styles are counterpointed by the hazardous work they must do.

In addition to the main ensemble, "Traffic" is populated by a number of small, but memorable appearances by familiar faces. Miguel Ferrer offers the voice of cynicism as a reluctant informer, Dennis Quaid ("Frequency") plays a lawyer of questionable scruples that assists Helena in freeing her husband, Albert Finney (who also appeared in "Erin Brockovich") is the White House Chief of Staff, an unrecognizable Benjamin Bratt (seen recently in "Miss Congeniality") is a Mexican drug kingpin, while an uncredited Salma Hayek ("Time Code") drops in as a drug lord's pampered girlfriend.

Far from rivaling Soderbergh's earlier and emotionally satisfying "Erin Brockovich", "Traffic" is certainly not the best film of the year. Given that shrinking the scope and narrative depth of a miniseries into a two-hour-plus movie is not an easy task, it is not surprising that Soderbergh has mixed results in condensing "Traffik" into "Traffic". Granted, "Traffic" succeeds in conveying how far-reaching the illicit drug trade is and how current law enforcement measures are ineffectual at dealing with it. However, it is not as successful when it comes to providing the audience an opportunity to become emotionally invested in the characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. Thus, some moviegoers may find their patience tested by "Traffic", which is a shame, since the film has so much to say.

Images courtesy of USA Films. All rights reserved.


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