Traffic (2000)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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Traffic is Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling epic about drugs, covering the people who sell it, consume it and who try to stop it.  The film features an ensemble cast that in some instances never connect.  It is the drug trafficking vision of The Longest Day (1962), the massive war film about the D-Day invasion.

The film is experimental in style, made with an undeniable energy that has to be appreciated purely for the scope of the movie.  We spend time straddling the border, following the foot soldiers on both sides as well as time with the leaders of the drug trade and the fight against the drug trade.  One is a San Diego-based kingpin who will be arrested and tried for his criminal behavior, and the other is an Ohio Judge (Michael Douglas) appointed to become a “drug czar.”  In his case the problem will hit close to home when his daughter quickly becomes an avid freebaser.

Because of how many people we follow it sometimes feels like we’re only just scratching the surface.  I would also guess that the ways drug lords and drug users are portrayed in this film, no matter how accurate, became a sort of template for later productions, whether Breaking Bad and Narcos or something like Sicario.

So in some ways this movie feels insincere and false, but I think that has more to do with what I carry into the movie.  From what I’ve read it is based on a great deal of research, and one of the movie’s writers, Stephen Gaghan, is a former drug addict who had a great deal of experience with prep school addicts, like Caroline (Erika Christensen), the Ohio Judge’s daughter.

At the very least, Traffic is purposefully ugly.  The drug use is beyond disturbing, but it’s so extreme that it feels a little outlandish, which I suppose is the point.  Such drug use and what it can do to someone and their family is insane and unthinkable.

From a broader standpoint there is a definite futility to the war on drugs.  The Drug Czar, Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is surprised to learn that Mexico hasn’t yet created his position and that the U.S. doesn’t have the necessary funds to combat what the cartel is working with.  To him, and to us, it quickly feels like we’re in a submarine trying to stop a leak with our bare hands.  When Wakefield’s daughter falls deep into her own habits, well you can understand how he becomes a little distracted.

On the ground we follow two friendly, committed American cops, Ray and Montel (Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle).  Most of the film they are in a van or a hotel room together, either babysitting a witness whose life is in danger or tailing Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of recently arrested drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer).

The witness is a man they arrested in an undercover operation early in the film, and though they’ve successfully forced him to testify, the man speaks down to them and says that none of what they do matters.  The anonymous source who tipped them off to his location?  He probably works for a rival cartel and just wants the territory for themselves.

It’s a sense of doom that Ray and Montel must reckon with, particularly after an explosive scene that kills Ray, and not long after the witness will find himself taken out another way.

The clear takeaway is that this is an idealistic but losing fight.  The people who are tough on drugs, it seems, often just want to make a big, sweeping declaration.  The reality of cleaning the streets is a much more complicated one that involves taking a step back and examining the socioeconomic conditions that created such an environment.  It’s a sensational but often fruitless battle, then, and we see the cost of that here in Traffic.

Up Next: Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Three Kings (1999), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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