THere is a scene in the middle of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic where Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a conservative judge recently appointed as a “drug czar” by the president, meets with General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is called has been led to believe that it is its Mexican equivalent. They speak of efforts to disrupt the Tijuana cartel, led by the Obregón brothers, but at this point we know that Salazar is aligned with the Juárez cartel and wants to use all the resources he can to end the competition. Wakefield then asks Salazar about addiction treatment, and the mask slides off a bit.
“Addicts treat themselves,” says Salazar. “They overdose and there’s one less to worry about.”
Soderbergh then cuts off Wakefield’s daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a teenage addict in her first stint of inpatient rehab, looking somewhere on campus. There’s an obvious irony here about the drug czar’s privileged daughter who lives on the freebase with her private school friends, but the film takes her case seriously, acknowledging both the transcendent pleasure of her first high and the long, exhausting and unsuccessful. -Every way back insured.
None of this material is alien to the narratives of the drug movies before or after Traffic, nor the high-level corruption of Mexican officials, nor the addiction and recovery arc, nor the film’s other stories about the DEA investigators, Mexican police, or wealthy distributors in Southern California. If any part of Stephen Gaghan’s script had been made into his own movie, it probably would have been familiar at best, if it weren’t completely packed with clichés. But under Soderbergh’s direction, the interlocking pieces of Gaghan’s cross-border tapestry not only provide a systemic overview of the “war on drugs,” but fuel a damning thesis about its failures.
For Soderbergh, Traffic was the close of a peak year in Hollywood, which began in March with Erin Brockovich and firmly established him as the go-to director for big stars eager to expand. (They would also follow him to his independent experiments, like Julia Roberts two years later in Full Frontal or Meryl Streep in the new improvisation Let Them All Talk.) In 2000, Soderbergh’s mind seemed to settle around an equation: How do you make entertainment popular and accessible while still being completely yourself? For a filmmaker who broke down after his debut, sex, lies, and videotape became an unlikely phenomenon – it was an important question.
Unfolding the striking color filters he used to delineate the timelines in his neo-noir The Underneath five years earlier, Soderbergh begins in the suntanned tan of Tijuana, where a police officer named Javier (Benicio del Toro) and his partner, each knocking down $ 316 a month, attempted blowout of a cocaine shipment. Their efforts are quickly hijacked by Salazar and his military thugs, who are clearly not going to take the drugs to seize them. Right away, the incentives for corruption are too powerful for a rank-and-file policeman to ignore: no money to follow the law, only danger.
Elsewhere, Wakefield is welcomed into the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy for an anecdote about Nikita Khrushchev leaving two letters for his successor to open whenever he gets in trouble: the first blame the last guy, the second to write two letters. What Wakefield soon discovers is a victory in the drug war is the occasional photo shoot alongside a large seizure; the actual war was long lost to a better financed and resourceful opponent. DEA agents like Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán) work hard to provide photo ops with operations like taking down an Obregón dealer (Steven Bauer) in the states, but justice is not guaranteed and mishaps are expected. tragic.
All the stories in Traffic reinforce a thoroughly scathing critique of the drug war, which is not simply useless in disrupting Mexico’s overwhelming supply and demand to the United States, but actively damaging in the pursuit of justice. The great partnership that Wakefield secures with Salazar simply uses American influence to help one cartel take down the other; The same goes for the lawsuit that the two DEA agents help secure against a dealer of the same cartel that Salazar wishes to destroy. And if that dealer is successfully prosecuted, his country club wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) turns out to be a quick study.
Time and again, Traffic criticizes bad incentives and misused resources. When Wakefield asks if anyone is involved in the treatment, his plane full of experts is silent; when he tells them “the dam is open to new ideas”, there is even more silence. Javier follows his conscience instead of taking dirty money, but even he has a limited idea of what that might bring him (lights at a community baseball field) and he barely escapes alive. If it weren’t for his daughter, a man like Wakefield would probably not be aware of the futility and waste of his job, or at least satisfied enough with the photographs and “face time” with the president to claim victories. that adds nothing. The whole movie feels like the run-up to the humble declaration, in his daughter’s support group, that he and his wife are “here to listen.”
Soderbergh won the best director Oscar for the film, and it’s one case the Academy got it right: Traffic shows off his talent for managing big sets and intricate plot mechanics: Ocean’s Eleven would be his next movie, but they’re the ones. smaller touches on the film. that really add up. A shootout that leads, absurdly, to a ball pit in Funzone. Javier leads his DEA handlers into the middle of a public swimming pool, where they can talk in their trunks, free of weapons and recording devices. The casual and humorous joke between Cheadle and Guzmán about surveillance. The use of dissolves and invisible editions to make associations between one story and another.
The ending is your best touch of all. After a movie full of unnecessary carnage and destruction, Soderbergh offers a picture of children playing baseball at night as Javier watches from the stands. Beneath the lights, with the magnificent ambience of Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent) on the soundtrack, the dusty look of Soderbergh’s Mexico casts a heavenly warmth, enhanced by a community that applauds their children. Victories in an unwinnable war are personal, Soderbergh suggests, and are hard-won.
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