Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan (based on the miniseries Traffik created by Simon Moore)
Stars: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Benicio Del Toro (Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez), Luis Guzman (Ray Castro), Dennis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Steven Bauer (Carlos Ayala), Jacob Vargas (Manolo Sanchez), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Clifton Collins Jr. (Francisco Flores), Miguel Ferrer (Eduardo Ruiz), Topher Grace (Seth Abrahams), Amy Irving (Barbara Wakefield)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA
Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is about the ultimate futility of the current war on drugs. In a lean, taut two and a half hours, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, a former writer for N.Y.P.D. Blue, weave an Altmanesque multi-layered narrative that covers every aspect of the illegal drug trade between Mexico and the United States. With more than 20 major characters, Traffic shows, with painful, indelible clarity, how the drug trade affects people from all walks of life, from the richest to the poorest, from the powerful to the powerless, and how this trade is, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable.

This point is most caustic when, near the end, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a well-respected Ohio supreme court justice who has been picked to fill the chief position in the U.S. Office of Drug Policy, attempts to give his first press-conference speech. Wakefield has spent the majority of the film dealing with his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), who has been on a rapid descent into the world of drug abuse. Wakefield attempts give the reporters what they want: positive, strong rhetoric about the need to fight the influx of illegal drugs. When he gets to the point where he is about to list his 10-point plan, he breaks down and cannot go on any more. It is key that he finally breaks at this point in the speech because it underlines how ineffective 10-point plans are in battling a multi-billion industry.

A similar, but different, moment occurs earlier when Wakefield asks a group of advisors to "think outside the box" for other ways to stop the drug trade. He is met with awkward silence because they are incapable of doing such a thing. Like the overlong involvement in Vietnam, the war on drugs is so entrenched in its own logic that it cannot see any other alternatives.

Having said all that, I want to make clear that Traffic is not a one-note film. Had it been that, it might not have been so memorable. On the contrary, it deals with the issues in a multifaceted manner; and, even though its overall message is one of despair, there are moments of hope. Even amid all the defeats in the battle to control the drug trade, there are still true believers, and the film strongly asserts that treatment and familial support for drug addicts is worth more than all the border inspections in the world.

One of the true believers is Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), a DEA investigator who, along with his partner, Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), busts a small-time drug wholesaler named Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). In a plea bargain, Ruiz agrees to give them information about his main supplier, who turns out to be a wealthy husband and father named Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Ayala is, perhaps, the most sinister of all because he is the kind of criminal who hides behind a thick mask of respectability. A pillar of his community who owns multiple legitimate businesses and hosts charity fundraisers at his multi-million-dollar home, he is actually one of the major suppliers of cocaine to all of California.

Ayala keeps this secret so well hidden, though, that not even his pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), knows about it until he is arrested. A substantial portion of the film follows Helena and her response to the discovery of her husband's secret business dealings. The results are chilling, as we watch a woman turn into a ruthless, calculating criminal capable of ordering an assassination all because she is afraid of being alone, something she has never experienced before.

Another major narrative thread concerns Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican cop who becomes involved with a Mexican army general who is battling a huge drug cartel for multiple reasons, not all of which are honorable. Javier is a complex character who goes through multiple changes throughout the film--it is hard to tell absolutely on which side he stands at any given point. Of course, he works as a police officer in Mexico, a country in which, as one character puts it, being a police officer is an entrepreneurial position.

The narrative in Traffic, which was based on a 1989 British miniseries of the same name (but spelled Traffik) that dealt with the European drug flow, is particularly adept at getting underneath the political rhetoric and middle-class assumptions about what the drug trade is. In fact, the film only seems to scratch the surface, suggesting an infinity of possibilities. The fact that corrupt Mexican officials and police officers use desperate, poor men to smuggle the drugs over the border, which are then taken by wealthy Americans and parceled out to street thugs and dealers, who then sell to everybody from pathetic junkies to wealthy suburban kids shows how the trade encompasses the totality of life in North America.

The most harrowing moments in Traffic, though, deal with Michael Douglas' character and his fight to save his daughter. The film suggests that he is partially to blame; as a politically active judge with a time-consuming career, he has not had the time to deal with a daughter in the thralls of adolescent angst. One of the harshest criticisms leveled by the film is that his daughter, Caroline, is particularly susceptible to drugs because she is rich and bored and, most importantly, has easy access. Led by another teenager, Seth (Topher Grace, many degrees removed from his lead role on the teen sitcom That '70s Show), she indulges in free-basing cocaine as a form of escape. But, that escape becomes a sharp descent that leads her from a privileged life in the suburbs to a strung-out existence in the ghetto where she will do anything, including selling her own body, for a hit.

Soderbergh directs Traffic with a sure hand, juggling multiple plots and dozens of characters with apparent ease. Despite the quick introductions and necessarily brief screen time that is spent with some of characters, all of them still emerge as fully realized. This is due in no small part to the fine performances--not a single character rings false or forced. What could have been tacky melodrama between Douglas' character and his daughter is instead touching and sincere. Douglas, despite his anger, reacts as a loving father, and one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the film is when he finally tracks Caroline down and, having found her naked in a sleazy motel, strung out and delirious, strokes her hair and cries.

The visual style of Traffic is also quite striking. Soderbergh, who acted as his own cinematographer, relies heavily on slightly unstable hand-held camerawork. He also uses special multi-stage film processing to give the scenes in Mexico a ragged, bleached look that contrasts with the sharper, blue-hued scenes in which politicians discuss and debate in large governmental buildings in the United States. He also adds some aesthetic flourishes, such as a gripping car-bomb sequence shot in slow motion in which all the sound drops out except for the musical score.

But, again, the film ultimately works not because of the style, but because of the characters and the storytelling. Soderbergh may not be telling us anything we don't already know--many rational people who have no interest in using drugs have nonetheless begun to concede the futility and monetary wastefulness of the drug war. But, he does it so well with so many intriguing and moving characters that the film takes hold of you and keeps you wrapped in its grip.

Traffic Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMay 28, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
Steven Soderbergh gave Traffic a unique visual look that utilizes several visual schemes to differentiate among plot threads. The new anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc, created from a 35mm interpositive, captures all of these visual schemes perfectly. The blue-tinted scenes are crisp and sharp, while the yellowish, desaturated scenes in Mexico are appropriately severe in their contrast and graininess. At Soderbergh's request, Criterion has used burned-in subtitles during the length sequences in Spanish, as opposed to player-generated electronic subtitles, in order to more accurately reflect the film's theatrical presentation.

English/Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround
Traffic also has a unique sound mix that was designed to add to its sense of realism. Rather than utilizing all the channels, the sound designer down-mixed everything into one-channel monaural, with the exception of Cliff Martinez's musical score. Thus, all dialogue and sound effects come out of the center channel, which aurally matches the film's slightly shaky, documentary-like aesthetic. However, when Martinez's music comes on, it swells from the full 5.1 channels, giving it a sweeping, all-encompassing sensation that is quite beautiful.

Three Audio Commentaries:
  • Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan
  • Producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien
  • Composer Cliff Martinez
    Director Steven Soderbergh is near the top of my list of directors I always find fascinating to listen to in audio commentaries. Perhaps it is because he is one of the few fiery independent directors to have worked successfully in the Hollywood mainstream, or perhaps it is because he is so thoroughly knowledgeable about and in love with the medium of the cinema, but he is consistently engaging and informative, even during a lengthy film like Traffic. Here, he teams up with the other Stephen, writer Stephen Gaghan, to discuss the making of Traffic on the first of three audio commentaries on this disc. They have a loose, easy-going rapport, giving plenty of background information and technical details, as well as amusing anecdotes and more than a few regrets about what they might have done had they known the film was going to turn out to be such a hit.

    The second audio commentary includes producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford and consultants Tim Golden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times, and Craig Chretien, former DEA Chief of Intelligence. Each was recorded separately and discusses different elements of the film. The most intriguing parts come from the two consultants, who talk candidly about the film's verisimilitude, which, for the most part, is quite high.

    The third audio track isolates the film's score in down-mixed two-channel stereo with commentary between the cues by composer Cliff Martinez, who has worked with Soderbergh on eight films. Because the film doesn't feature nearly as much music as the typical Hollywood production, there is quite a bit of space for Martinez to elaborate on his working methods, the various musicians involved, and what he was aiming for with each musical cue.

    25 Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan)
    More than two-dozen deleted scenes is a lot of additional material, and, in their optional audio commentary, Soderbergh and Gaghan regret having had to cut some of it. Most of it fell on the editing room floor for the purposes of pacing and length, although a few scenes just didn't work very well narratively. Most of the footage here deals with additional character development, and most of the scenes are fairly short, running a minute or less. Some of it consists of entire scenes, while others are extensions of existing scenes or, in one case, an alternate version of an existing scene (there is also one fairly humorous gag). More than any other character, Catherine Zeta-Jones' Helena took the hardest hit in the editing room, and the additional scenes here work very well to more fully realize her character, including four scenes that were part of a subplot involving her having to smuggle cocaine over the border as a test for Obregon. All the scenes are presented in anamorphic widescreen.

    Film Processing Demonstration
    To demonstrate how much work went into creating the visual look of the Mexico sequences, this demonstration shows us roughly a minute of footage from early in the film at five different stages of film processing, taking us from the original, untreated work print to the final version. A narrator explains in an audio commentary what was done in each stage of the processing. Presented in anamorphic widescreen.

    Editing Demonstration
    This demonstration explores the construction of four scenes from the film (Overdose, Caroline is Caught, Javier Meets the DEA, and Monte Visits the Ayales). Using the multi-angle feature, you can switch between a view of the editor's Avid screen exactly as it looked during editing and a full-frame Avid output. Editor Stephen Mirrione explains in an audio commentary how each scene was put together from the rough footage, and the experience is not unlike looking over his shoulder while he works. Very intriguing and, like the film processing demonstration, gives you a deeper respect for the amount of labor that goes into making films.

    Dialogue Editing Demonstration
    The four demonstrations in this section show the various ways in which dialogue editing affects the film. Supervising sound editor Larry Blake discusses, for instance, how the unwanted sound of a radio playing in the background during one of the Mexico scenes was eliminated, or how additional dialogue recording was used to insert a crucial plot point that had been left out, or how a single line of dialogue can be constructed out of bits and fragments from multiple takes. Like the editing demonstration, we are at times privileged with a view of the computer screen Blake worked from, giving the sensation of watching over his shoulder.

    Additional Footage
    One would think that 25 deleted scenes would comprise the bulk of deleted footage, but this section shows that there was more--much more--that was left on the cutting room floor (about half an hour's worth). The footage here, however, is all in a rough, unedited state. There are four scenes in this section, all of which have a text introduction and several of which utilize the multi-angle feature to allow you to joggle among different camera positions (to speed up production, Soderbergh often shot with two- or three-camera set-ups).

    The first scene, which is a lecture given at the El Paso Intelligence Center, has three camera positions. The second scene, which is rough tracking footage of an enormous warehouse where law enforcement agencies store seized drugs, offers an optional audio commentary by Traffic adviser Craig Chretien. The third scene, additional footage at the Georgetown cocktail party, gives us raw footage of Michael Douglas talking drug enforcement with 11 different real-life politicians and media celebrities, from Senator Orrin Hatch to MTV correspondent Chris Connelly (this section uses three angles and is divided into 11 chapters corresponding to each person). Finally, there is a longer scene with Erika Christensen and Topher Grace walking in the city to buy drugs, which shows us three different takes, with takes 1 and 2 offering two different angles.

    Teaser and Original Theatrical Trailers
    Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

    5 TV Spots

    K-9 Squad Trading Cards
    This section contains roughly 100 trading card produced by U.S. Customs as a tribute to their K-9 squad. Each card features a detector dog (most of which are either German Shepherds or Labradors) and specific information, such as the dog's name, weight, age, and largest drug bust. Just when you thought you had seen it all ...

  • Copyright © 2001, 2002 James Kendrick

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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