Steven Soderbergh strikes cinematic gold yet again with Traffic, an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining drama that marks the 37-year old director’s fourth successive winner in the past two and a half years (following Out of Sight, The Limey and Erin Brockovich). His unflinching, honest look at America’s war on drugs, mixed with a perfect ensemble cast and technical professionalism make this film an absolute must-see piece of cinema.
There are a trio of stories happening at once in Traffic, all revolving around the United States’ somewhat unsuccessful war on drug trafficking from Mexico. Story one involves Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) the newly appointed anti-drug czar who finds his crusade taking on a personal slant thanks to his daughter Caroline’s (Erika Christensen) crack cocaine addiction. Story two involves a Tijuana-based cop named Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) who finds his loyalties and principles tested when he finds himself working for a corrupt army general (Thomas Milan) who is on both sides of the drug war in Mexico.
The third tale involves two determined DEA agents, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), who conduct a sting operation on a San Diego-based dealer named Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) with the hopes that this bust will lead them to Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a local kingpin. This arrest leads us to Ayala’s pregnant socialite wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who learns of her husband’s business (one she was never aware of before) and, through a series of situations she is forced to deal with, begins to show a ruthless nature unseen until now.
One of the factors that set Traffic apart from other films that deal with the drug trade is that Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who based his script on the British mini-series Traffik) don’t give us easy answers. It skips the Big Conclusion that would neatly wrap everything up (something Soderbergh did to great effect with his 1989 masterpiece sex, lies and videotape), allowing for an ending that is realistic and respectful of its viewer to come up with his or her own conclusions. The only real problem the two that I could find in the storytelling department is that the storyline involving Wakefield’s domestic trouble really doesn’t have the emotional punch it should have for us to sympathize with anyone in that family. Aside from that, Gaghan’s screenplay is finely detailed, intense and fascinating, one that does a great job in juggling three stories at once, and Soderbergh brings it to life with the greatest of ease (big surprise there, kids).
However, Soderbergh cannot take all the credit for making this film the winner that it is. As with any of his films, his cast proves to be just as invaluable to the production. There isn’t a single bad performance to be had here, as each actor or actress gives it their all. Among the highlights are Cheadle and Guzman, who work perfectly off each other to provide at times a welcome level of comic relief, while Erika Christensen makes one hell of a screen debut as the 16-year old cocaine addict. But it is Benicio Del Toro and Catherine Zeta-Jones who turn in award worthy performances. Del Toro infuses his story with a quiet sense of humility while Jones convincingly turns from happy socialite to a modern-day Lady MacBeth without breaking a sweat.
The technical aspects of Traffic also play a major role, be it Soderbergh’s hand held, multi-colored cinematography (he shot it under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Stephen Mirrone’s smashing editing (my pick for this year’s Best Editing Oscar, hands down) or Soderbergh regular Cliff Martinez’s understated, hypnotic electronic score, this is the work of professional talents at the height of their game.
I am still trying to figure out the formula to Steven Soderbergh’s incredible track record of making motion pictures that dare to be different while being enormously entertaining. Maybe he sold his soul to the Weinstein brothers at Miramax (which would confirm my 1998 theory that they are Satan incarnate) eleven years ago when they released his first film, sex, lies and videotape. Or maybe it is just that he loves movies so much that his enthusiasm as a fan spills over into his work. Who knows? All I do know is that his films work. His films leave viewers craving a fix of quality cinema on a delirious high, which is exactly what I felt after watching Traffic.