Traffic (review)

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All Drugged Up

(Best of 2000)

Tobacco farmers and liquor manufacturers get subsidies. Marijuana growers and cocaine smugglers get arrested. If the hypocrisy of the “war on drugs” infuriates you, then you’ll end up with a feeling of smug satisfaction after Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s stark and unflinching depiction of both the naive cluelessness and outright pretense that characterizes drug warriors from local cops and the DEA right on up to federal judges and national politicians.
A series of interconnected stories leap us around the United States and Mexico, weaving the threads of the international drug trade into a dismal but masterfully plotted tapestry. San Diego DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle: The Family Man, Mission to Mars) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán: Magnolia, The Bone Collector) convince the depressingly realistic midlevel dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer: Mulan) to give evidence against his boss, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer)… whose wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones: The Haunting, The Mask of Zorro) is shocked to find her posh California home invaded by cops arresting her husband for criminal activities of which she was blissfully unaware. The Mexican cartel for which Ayala imports product is under siege by local police, including Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Swimming with Sharks), and the cops south of the border are just beginning to work hand in hand with the new American drug czar, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas: Wonder Boys, Wall Street)… whose teenaged daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), unbeknownst to him, is struggling with her own drug addictions.

Soderbergh hit it big this past spring with Erin Brockovich — clichéd under its Norma Rae adventurousness, it was nevertheless a nearly Capra-esque feel-good, you- can- fight- city- hall drama. Traffic, equally clichéd — of course the drug czar’s kid is an addict — is a feel-bad, what’s- the- point- in- even trying thriller, but one that conquers its own threatening conventionality with Soderbergh’s unromantic documentary style and terrific — and often terrifying — performances all around, especially from Del Toro. And for all the looking down its nose Traffic does at the sanctimonious posturings of politicians who readily and freely enjoy their own mind-altering substances, most notably alcohol, without recognizing the irony, Traffic most certainly does not romanticize drug use of any kind, legal or illegal. Rather, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan want us to consider the futility of waging any kind “war on drugs” that doesn’t recognize that the enemy is us.

How can a parent, even one so aware of the dangers hard drugs present, as Wakefield is, be so unaware of his own child’s behavior… or so dismissive of it, as Caroline’s mother (Amy Irving: Bossa Nova) is? How can an underpaid, overworked cop like Rodriguez resist the siren call of the easy money to be made if only he crosses over to the other side, the criminal side? How can an idealistic and honest cop like Gordon ever win when his opponent, Ayala, plays dirty? How can we eliminate the supply of deadly addictive drugs if we don’t eliminate the ennui with ordinary life that drives some people to use them, or the economic incentive that drives some people to sell them?

This is a disconsolate tale about the near hopelessness of it all. It does offer us a nugget of optimism in the end, as one man dares to break the cycle of greed that fuels the illegal drug trade, but I have to wonder whether that’s enough. I was shocked, during the screening of Traffic, to hear people laughing with delight as Zeta-Jones’ Helena morphs from an unsuspecting innocent into a hard, tough woman capable of single-handedly running her husband’s business while he’s in federal custody. If even so severe and unforgiving a film as Traffic can elicit exactly the opposite reaction it intends — Helena’s transformation is meant to be tragic, and it is — then we’ve got a long way to go.

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