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  • Post last modified:08/06/2023

Traffic: The Never-Ending Story


Benicio del Toro. Photo: USA Films

After watching Traffik, a 1990 British miniseries portraying the illegal drugs trade from the Pakistani opium poppy grower to the British user, Steven Soderbergh knew that the story would work just as well transferred to an American and Mexican setting. He also knew that he wanted a reportage feel, which is why he studied classics like The Battle of Algiers (1965) and (1969). While he doesn’t quite capture the feeling of watching a documentary as well as those films, Soderbergh’s greatest feat is an irresistibly gripping epic. 

Three simultaneous storylines
We are introduced to several characters and at least three storylines that we follow simultaneously. There’s Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro), a Mexican cop who’s hired by a general who wants him to capture a hit man for the Tijuana Cartel. On the other side of the border, there’s two DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán) working in San Diego who are trying to get closer to a drug lord, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who has ties to the Tijuana Cartel. When Ayala is arrested, his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is suddenly made aware of how her posh life is financed. 

And then there’s Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a conservative judge about to be appointed the White House’s new drug czar even though he has no idea that his daughter (Erika Christensen) likes to freebase at parties… 

Sense of urgency and reality
There’s a scene where Wakefield is mingling with the Washington power elite. Several of those who appear are real-life senators, such as Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid and Chuck Grassley. It’s obvious that Soderbergh wanted a sense of urgency and reality to permeate the film; this is a story about the war on drugs, begun under President Richard Nixon, and its consequences. Over the decades, the realization that the term “war on drugs” is too general and even counter-productive has seeped into the public conscience and even influenced the Obama Administration’s attitude. But at the time of this film’s release, the term was still very much alive and Stephen Gaghan clearly shows how close drugs are to our families. Wakefield’s speech near the end may seem redundant but it is nonetheless poignant, completely nailing why the term is wrong-headed. 

Soderbergh balances these depressing insights with a lot of tension and a stellar, star-studded cast.

The Wakefield story is personal, but Javier’s experiences are, to an even greater degree, about life and death, poverty and prosperity. It is easy for Javier to do what’s wrong and benefit from it, hard to keep his hands clean. The Ayala/DEA story offers less depth and more thrills. This part in particular makes it clear that we’re merely dropping by, witnessing a process, a dance around each other, that has no end in sight. All in all, it’s obvious that the fight will just go on. Soderbergh balances these depressing insights with a lot of tension and a stellar, star-studded cast where del Toro stands out as the sullen Mexican cop. 

As usual, the director has also photographed the film, employing distinctly different looks for each storyline. Wakefield’s world is blue to the point where it’s starting to look like an old color-tinted silent film; Javier’s is yellow, filtered and over-exposed. It’s borderline too much, but it does help us understand how vastly different these worlds are. 

The movie was an interesting entry in the debate over America’s drug policies, but looking back over the 21st century’s first decade it’s also worth noting that the style of Traffic influenced other films. Sure, there had been many similar tapestries earlier, interweaving several stories with a shared theme, but this was on an even broader canvas, especially geographically. I wonder if Alejandro González Iñárritu perhaps found it inspiring?

Traffic 2000-U.S. 147 min. Color. Produced by Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick. Directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan. Editing: Stephen Mirrione. Cast: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Benicio del Toro (Javier Rodriguez), Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, Dennis Quaid… Miguel Ferrer, Albert Finney, Topher Grace, Benjamin Bratt, James Brolin, Peter Riegert, Viola Davis, John Slattery. Cameo: Salma Hayek.

Trivia: Harrison Ford was first considered for the part of Wakefield. The British miniseries was also remade as an American miniseries, Traffic (2004). 

Oscars: Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (del Toro), Film Editing. Golden Globes: Best Screenplay, Supporting Actor (del Toro). BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (del Toro). Berlin: Best Actor (del Toro).

Quote: “If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.” (Douglas)

Last word: “My production sound-mixer who I’ve known since I was 13 and was one of the college students that I was hanging out with and making films with when I was growing up, sent me an e-mail when it was all done, saying, ‘This was the closest to what I imagined it could be like when we were making our own films and imagined making bigger films.’ This one, I felt like we finally captured . . . we transplanted that sense of work and play that we had in Baton Rouge 20 years ago on to this large-scale production. That was a nice note to get, because I had felt it too, because I think it translates. I know the actors like it.” (Soderbergh, Indiewire)

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