Every so often a film comes along that changes how the public considers movies. Traffic is such a film. While multithread story lines are nothing new, just check out Nashville or more recently Magnolia, Traffic differs in how its three story threads are presented. The stories are not so much interlaced as they are juxtaposed. The first story takes place in Mexico. It concerns two federal drug officers Javier Rodriquez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner (played by Jacob Vargas). They intercept a large drug shipment only to find themselves intercepted by the Mexican Army Drug enforcement chief (Tomas Milian). As much as Rodriquez is dedicated to stopping drug trafficking he is blocked not only by the vast amounts of drugs in Mexico but also by the prevalent corruption in Mexican law enforcement. The second story is on this side of the border. Two DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle ) and his partner Ray Castro (Luis Gizman) on are the trail of a drug middle man wonderfully played by Miguel Ferrer. (Trivia buffs take note he is the first cousin of George Clooney) This thread leads into the story of a pregnant wife of a drug distributor. Helen Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is unaware that her husband sells large quantities of cocaine for a living and after his arrest finds her perfect life in shambles. No money, no friends and no where to turn she has to face not only her husbands business but the potential for a much different and lower quality of life. The third thread is called The Czar. Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed Americas newest drug Czar. He is all set with ideas and plans to reduce drug traffic in the country. Soon, he finds the battle has come closer to home than he ever imagined. His teen-age daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is herself addicted to cocaine. While characters form one thread may pass those in one of the others there is little interaction between the stories. The film provides a realistic look at the multiple strata involved with the drug trade. The only connection is the drug and how it makes some rich at the price of devastating families thousands of miles away. The film states outright that we cannot consider this a war, the American government is out financed by the drug lords, and more importantly, we are fighting our own children.
This is perhaps one of the finest casts assembled since Stones JFK. Even the minor roles are filed with actors of notable ability. Of the many main characters several performances stand out. Del Toro won the coveted Oscar for supporting actor for his sympathetic portrayal of an honest Mexican cop. While most of his performance is in Spanish, even those viewers limited to reading the English subtitles will appreciate the excellence in this mans artistic manner. The team of Guzman and Cheadle, both often found together in P.T. Anderson films, fit perfectly together. Their off screen friendship makes their roles of long time partners real and believable. The role of Helena was perfect for Zeta-Jones. Actually pregnant during the filming she shifts from pampered rich housewife to bitter survivor is a brutally real fashion. The real breakout performance in this film is by the young actress Erkia Christensen. Many will confuse her with Julia Styles, a mistake that will disappear as her performance progresses. While the two actresses bear a striking physical similarity Christensen is more powerful in this performance that any Styles has yet to have. There is a scene where she is doing drugs in the bathroom as her father (the Drug Czar) enters her room. She not only holds her own in this dramatic moment with one of the most seasoned actors in Hollywood, she takes the scene from him. Douglas, is the consummate professional and yields to this young womans talent.
This film has one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood today, Steven Soderbergh. In fact, he pulled off a double play at the 2000 Oscars, nominated for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Soderbergh has often pushed into new was of presenting film. He gained fame with his 1987 independent classic, sex, lies and videotape. Here in Traffic he pulls out all the stops to give the audience a new perspective and experience. I want to be up front here, this movie is not going to appeal to everyones tastes. The directing style is very different from most films in the mainstream. First, the scenes in Mexico are mostly in Spanish. Subtitles are supplied forcing your eyes to dart between the emotive performances and the required reading. Personally, I find this approach less condescending to the audience than people in other countries always speaking perfect English. It also adds to the realistic documentary style that pervades the film. Next is the use of color filters. Yellow is used in Mexico to provide that hot, frustrating feeling that reinforces the dilemma of the characters. Blue is used in scenes where Michael Douglas is shown in his position of authority. The contrast in the color pallet deepens the emotional impact. Adding to the documentary feel is Soderberghs use of sound. The dialogue is in mono with the 5.1 soundtrack enfolding it. Soderbergh also refuses to take the many concessions all too many directors take. For example, in the scene where the daughter is talked into having sex while high the cheap way would be to make this scene very explicit. Soderbergh takes the high road (no pun intended) and cuts away respecting the imagination of the audience to fill in the details. He also shows that the war against drugs cannot be fought as a war. It affects our children and drug addiction is a major health care issue. He also subtly promotes peer help groups like Narcotics Anonymous.
The disc is excellent, extremely well mastered. The sound is crisp and clear although some of the dialogue is a bit muddled. The video is anamorphic 1.85:1. Every detail is explicit. The extras are a little light. There is an excellent documentary "Behind Traffic". If you have children sit them down and watch this one with them. It will open up some much needed discussion. It will entertain and enlighten.