Friday, February 22, 2013

Traffic (2000)

Germany/USA, 147 minutes
Director/photography: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Simon Moore, Stephen Gaghan
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Cast: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Luiz Guzman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Albert Finney, Clifton Collins Jr., Tomas Milian, James Brolin, Steven Bauer, Miguel Ferrer, D.W. Moffett, Peter Riegert, Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch, Viola Davis, John Slattery

However permanent it may or may not turn out to be, Steven Soderbergh's scheduled exile from filmmaking has motivated me to pile on his surprisingly big output as a director (and editor, and cinematographer) and do some catching up. He has had his prolific periods. Traffic, which I saw when it was new, was a part of a rush of work he released at the turn of the century, with The Limey (still my one favorite by him, despite its unfortunate influence), Erin Brockovich, and Ocean's Eleven, all released within a year or two of one another.

Traffic may be the most self-consciously "serious" of them, pretty close when all is said and done to what used to be called a "message picture." The societal issue under discussion is public policy on recreational drugs, and the message is "the War on Drugs is not working." It helps that I am heartened to see the issue taken on and that message delivered, but it helps even more that the movie, though not without flaws, is also a pleasure to watch, a great big snack cake of a movie, with a relaxed confidence about knowing what it is and what it can and cannot do, packed full of memorable performances, and deftly managing the subtleties and nuances not just of the characters and their interactions, but perhaps more importantly (for me, in this instance) of the sensitive, complex, and explosive issue at its core.

It is arty, deliberately so, throwing yellow and blue filters over scenes and sequences shot with handheld cameras, and otherwise using a saturated palette that glows and hums with radioactive menace (that's all Soderbergh, by the way, director of photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). Yet alongside that are the coldly clinical public policy complexities, soberly considered, fully engaged to my sights and taking on the main planks of the argument as it existed then, and mostly continues to exist today: interdiction versus treatment models, with many permutations of both, and consequences considered—the unintended, as always, the most fascinating and horrifying.

Traffic is also an extravaganza of celebrity, with a large cast of well-knowns and insidiously familiars playing out multiple stories winding around one another in ever-tightening knots: Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, a DC pol on the move from an appointment as a circuit court judge into the role of "U.S. Drug Czar," director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a low-level policeman in Tijuana, Mexico, where, as one character memorably explains it, "law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity." Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle as Ray Castro and Montel Gordon, DEA agents and partners. And Catherine Zeta-Jones, who I think gives the best performance here, as Helena Ayala, whose California husband is facing major felony charges for drug smuggling.

So far so good, but there are a lot of ways to go wrong with a star-studded message picture about drug policy. The little miracle of it is that it manages to cover a lot of ground and makes very few mistakes. In fact, the title is unusually apt. Moving drugs has become the oxygen and lifeblood of a significant part of the economy, and thus of our lives, in one way or another, in many ways, as this movie so convincingly shows. Thus, almost naturalistically, Traffic simply sits and watches them move—watches the whole system move them, a convincing picture of a giant, clanking juggernaut of self-destruction.

The thread with Del Toro built around the goings-on south of the border remains the most compelling, probably because it remains most relevant today. If anything, according to streams of reporting, the brutalities on display have only become worse among the drug cartels, law enforcement, and federal, state, and local government in Mexico (notably Tijuana and Juarez), including the military. As a broken record, I will now note that this is because the essential calculus remains in place: if the "demand" side of the equation is not addressed, there will always be someone willing to take the risks of the supply side. The rewards simply remain too great.

Javier Rodriguez has defined his role as a Mexican police officer in the equation as providing safety. He has decided that if he can earn enough money, he can build a baseball field with night lighting, where kids can play and a community can come together and be safe. He cannot change the corrupt system with which he is involved. He can only make it work toward the end of making a neighborhood safe. We watch him walk a mile or two down a road that stretches for hundreds of miles, but it gives us a good sense of the journey, an infinitely sad one that Del Toro's face alone is well suited to play.

The weakest thread here is the Wakefield one, not just the phony West Wing feeling of an overt and deliberate fiction that must necessarily dog it—Douglas earned his bona fides for this in An American President, so it also feels a little stale, though Douglas is good as always—but especially the arc of his overachieving 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) into drug addiction. It has good parts: the underrated Topher Grace is terrific as usual, some of the most harrowing scenes in the entire movie are in this thread, and certainly I like the message. But it's all a bit mechanical to move Robert Wakefield from his hard interdiction stance to a more moderated embrace of treatment, and plays much like an illustrative morality skit. About Wakefield's actual moment of truth, the less said the better, except to note that it was shot on a borrowed set from The West Wing. Apparently they forgot to borrow the theme music too.

The Helena Ayala thread and Catherine Zeta-Jones's icy note-perfect performance are what make it easy for me to classify Traffic not just as one of Soderbergh's "goods" but as more one of his "betters" (could I be any more tentative?). Helena's transformation from a country club wife and mother who treats her girlfriends to roasted duck at lunch into a monster of power is swift, to be sure, but explained deftly by the ominous implications of an orphaned childhood south of the border. I bought it anyway. She says at one point that she will do anything to avoid "going back there" as a single mother, and it is Zeta-Jones who makes that and everything in every scene with her absolutely convincing.

It was the best part of the whole thing, I thought, and the whole thing is full of good parts. In terms of its status as a message picture, I think Traffic remains useful, unfortunately. Things have changed in 13 years, but not that much, and hardly all to the good. I look forward to the day when we can view Traffic as antiquated. On that day, I can only hope—I'm pretty sure, in fact—that it will turn out to be better than, say, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (perhaps, one can hope, even as good as most believe that M is).

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