Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/23/09 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
The war on drugs has been a costly battle with the government spending loads of money fighting against drug dealers and crime lords. Yet, the drug wars have shown that not much progress had happened once it arrived into the 21st Century. Films about drugs and drug wars were often glamorized and over the top until a 1989 British TV show called Traffik brought a realistic view of the drug wars and its effects on people. The show caught the attention of renowned independent film director Steven Soderbergh who had just gained a comeback with 1998's Out of Sight and 1999's The Limey. For a film adaptation of the show, Soderbergh took the film's multiple storyline study on drugs for a huge, dramatic feature about the drug trade and drugs on the home front entitled Traffic.
Directed and shot by Steven Soderbergh with a script written by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic tells three different stories about the war on drugs. The first involves a Mexican police officer fighting drugs in his native country only to deal with corruption from the police force he's working for. The second story involves a drug czar fighting a war on drugs for the government while dealing with his daughter's drug addiction. The third and final story involves a wife learning that her husband is a big-time drug lord as she decides to fight for his freedom while battling a couple of DEA agents. Three storylines moving back and forth and intercut with each other as they all connect, the film is a harrowing yet provocative feature about the drug war and its effects on the individuals involved.
Starring Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Steven Bauer, Dennis Quaid, Luis Guzman, Jacob Vargas, Tomas Milian, Amy Irving, Miguel Ferrer, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Clifton Collins Jr., Peter Riegert, and cameo appearances from Salma Hayek and Albert Finney. Traffic is an eerie yet profound masterpiece from Steven Soderbergh.
Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) are police officers that just got attention over a drug bust in Tijuana, Mexico. General Salazar (Tomas Milian) wants Rodriguez's help to stop the power of the Obregon family as he and Manolo captured the family's top assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr.). Despite the success, Rodriguez believes that something isn't right as he gets into deep over what he finds. In Ohio, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge that just been given a new job to be the new Drug Czar for the President after his predecessor (James Brolin) steps down as he gives Wakefield a warning. With his assistant Jeff Sheridan (D.W. Moffett) helping Wakefield to fight against drugs, his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become a drug addict where her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) introduces her to freebased cocaine.
Following a bust, Robert's wife Barbara (Amy Irving) reveals to Robert that she knows about Caroline's addiction prompting him to send his daughter to rehab. With Robert's new job taking much of his time as he meets General Salazar, a DEA bust in San Diego by Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) leads to the capture of Eduard Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) who rats out his boss Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). With Ayala revealed to be the Obregon's top distributor as he gets arrested, Ayala's pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) turns to Carlos's friend Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) for help. Arnie brings in attorney Michael Adler (Peter Riegert) to deal with the case while Helena learns about her husband's true job as she goes to Frankie Flowers to get Ruiz killed while later meeting Juan Obregon (Benjamin Bratt) to continue business.
After learning that Caroline has escaped rehab, Robert tries to find her with Seth's help prompting him to deal with the demand of his new job. Rodriguez's suspicions have him and Manolo turning to the DEA as trouble occurs as Rodriguez goes to Manolo's wife (Marisa Padilla Sanchez) for help. In turn, Rodriguez would create moves that would change everything for him, Robert Wakefield, and Helena Ayala.
The film can be described as a message film of sorts about the war on drugs, its lack of progress, and how it's troubled certain individuals. Yet, Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan create a film that goes into the world of the drug culture and its effects on government, lifestyles, and the people fighting against. What Soderbergh and Gaghan creates is a political film with some human drama with Gaghan creating a story that isn't conventional. Instead, Gaghan's approach in the script is to move from one storyline to another and to another in a rhythmic, intercutting style of writing to connect one situation to another. Gaghan's screenplay is truly brilliant in its political and social commentary on drugs, its effects on the economy, and how one tries to either fight corruption or use it to maintain a certain lifestyle.
The three storylines created for the film are truly genius due to Gaghan's approach in telling the story. For the story of Javier Rodriguez and his discovery of corruption within the police force he's working for is about a man trying to do the right thing. Even if he has to risk his life and maybe his own moral judgment where his only gain is his conscience and something he wants that isn't for him. In the Robert Wakefield storyline, it's about a conservative judge taking on a role to fight drugs for the President while having to deal with drugs in his home as his daughter spirals down into a world of drugs. The third storyline about Helena Ayala discovering what her husband really does and Montel Gordon's fight to keep Carlos Ayala in jail provides an interesting, dramatic sense of conflict of two people trying to fight for what they each think is right.
Then there's Steven Soderbergh's direction which is truly mesmerizing in his approach to tell the story. Also serving as the film's cinematographer under the Peter Andrews alias, Soderbergh goes for various styles in telling the story for the three different storylines. For all the scenes shot in Mexico, Soderbergh goes for this cinema verite style of handheld cameras, grainy footage awash in sepia-like colors to play up to the country's desert-like climate. The camera work is shaky and loose with interior shots in some places very low in order to create an atmosphere as there's very few moments where the camera is still. In some of the scenes involving Robert Wakefield and his situation, a lot of the daytime scenes are shot in this blue, cold style to represent the chilling feel of addiction in Caroline. The camera work and direction is more steady and dramatic in order to discover the troubles of addiction from a young teenager.
In the scenes shot in California, Texas, the border from the U.S. perspective, and nighttime U.S. scenes, are more traditional though the daytime, exterior and interior shots are more sunny, dream-like, and wondrous for the California feel of the film. The camera work is also more steady and dramatic like the Wakefield sequence as Soderbergh does make it clear in how he wanted each storyline and location to be presented. He creates a film that doesn't play up to convention while creating different worlds in each location and setting while maintaining the film's theme on the war on drugs. The result is truly a film that is unique in its varied visual styles and themes as it's done with such brilliance by Steven Soderbergh.
Editor Stephen Mirrione does spectacular work with the editing in the use of jump-cuts, dissolves, and rhythmic transitions to create a feel to the film that doesn't get boring but also doesn't go way too fast. Mirrone's cutting style is truly fascinating in the way he shifts from one sequence to another with a nice cutting transition as if he plays to a certain rhythm while knowing when not to cut or move to another sequence. Mirrone's work is overall superb in the art of editing. Production designer Phillip Messina along with set decorator Kristen Toscano Messina and art director Keith P. Cunningham do excellent work with the homes of the various characters from the gritty, urban look of Rodriguez to the posh worlds of the Wakefield and Ayalas. Costume designer Louise Frogley does fine work with the look of Helena's dresses along with the suits that Robert Wakefield wears as well as the urban clothing and street clothes that most of the characters wear.
Sound editor Larry Blake does fantastic work with the sound to help with the film's varied locations with actual location sounds for the film's Mexico sequences that are raw and crisp to capture the Mexican deserts. The U.S. sequences are more layered and mixed with some polish but also to make them atmospheric for the dramatic tension of Gordon-Ayala sequence and haunting in the Wakefield sequence. Blake's work is truly superb in its sense of action and drama. Music composer Cliff Martinez creates a truly haunting, atmospheric score filled with ambient-style textures for it sense of mood and drama with light, percussive pieces in the background, piano performances from noted jazz musician Herbie Hancock, and soft bass melodies from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, whom Martinez used to play drums for. The soundtrack includes electronic pieces from Morcheeba and Fat Boy Slim plus an ambient piece from Brian Eno.
The casting by Debra Zane is truly phenomenal with appearances from John Slattery as an ADA official, Viola Davis as a social worker, real-life politicians Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, and Charles Grassley. Salma Hayek makes a very memorable cameo as the mistress of a drug lord while Albert Finney is good in a small role as Chief of Staff. Other small roles like Alec Roberts as Helena's son David, Corey Spears as a friend of Seth and Caroline who overdoses, Rena Sofer and Stacey Travis as a couple of Helena's friends, and Eddie Velez as a FBI agent Javier Rodriguez turns to. Steven Bauer is good in his small role as Carlos Ayala, a distributor who is jailed as he gives his wife information on how to get him out. Marisa Padilla Sanchez is also good as Manolo's wife who suspects something is wrong as she turns to Javier while Peter Riegert is very good as Carlos' attorney. In another small performance, Benjamin Bratt is excellent as Juan Obregon, the cartel leader who makes a deal with Helena.
Jacob Vargas is excellent as Manolo, Javier's partner who finds himself hanging out with Salazar's men only to get into trouble when he tries to reveal information to the DEA. D.W. Moffett is very good as Robert Wakefield's assistant while James Brolin is really good as Wakefield's predecessor who gives him a warning about the new role Wakefield is taking on. Amy Irving gives a fine performance as Barbara Wakefield, Robert's wife who knows about her daughter's secret but has no ways to stop Caroline's increasing addiction. Clifton Collins Jr. is great as Frankie Flowers, an assassin who provides information to Salazar under torture while helping out Helena in an assassination attempt on Eduardo Ruiz. Spaghetti Western legend Tomas Milian is great as the shady General Salazar as he provides charm and wit into his role. Topher Grace of That 70's Show is great as Seth, Caroline's boyfriend who provides commentary on drugs and its affects on the social standings.
Erika Christensen delivers a brilliant, haunting performance as Caroline Wakefield, a teenage girl who becomes a drug addict as Christensen brings all of the realism and angst to a troubled character. Dennis Quaid is excellent in a small role as Arnie, Carlos' lawyer and partner, who tries to handle things only to not have Elena involved. Miguel Ferrer is very good as Eduardo Ruiz, Carlos' associate who gets caught and demands immunity as he gives commentary about the DEA and their real role. Luis Guzman is great as Ray Castro, the DEA agent who tells jokes while providing some funny lines as he has wonderful scenes with Don Cheadle. Don Cheadle is superb as Montel Gordon, a DEA agent determined to get Carlos Ayala arrested as part of his job while being Eduardo Ruiz's protector. Catherine Zeta-Jones is wonderful as Helena Ayala, a woman who discovers her husband's true job as she steps up to take over and make moves that truly proved how loyal she is to her husband.
Michael Douglas is brilliant as Robert Wakefield, a man who becomes a drug czar who takes on a huge important role for the government unaware of the damage that his daughter is taking towards drugs. It's a brilliant role from Douglas as he plays a man in deep conflict while dealing with trouble at home. Finally, there's Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a good cop facing corruption while trying to stop drugs and corruption around him. It's a fantastic role from del Toro as he brings a lot of restraint and wonderment to his character as man trying to do good, even if he has to question his own moral judgement.
Traffic is a haunting, gritty, and provocative film from Steven Soderbergh and company. Thanks to an all-star cast led by Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luis Guzman. This is truly a film that is original, fascinating, and with a message that isn't overbearing. Fans of Soderbergh definitely considers this as one of his finest films to date while it's also a great introduction to his filmography. In the end, Traffic isn't just one of the best films of the decade but also a haunting film that will surely be seen by audiences in the years to come.
Steven Soderbergh Films: sex, lies, & videotape - Kafka - King of the Hill - The Underneath - Gray's Anatomy - Schizpolis - Out of Sight - The Limey - Erin Brockovich - Ocean's Eleven - Full Frontal - Solaris (2002 film) - Eros-Equilibrium - Ocean's Twelve - Bubble - The Good German - Ocean's Thirteen - Che - The Girlfriend Experience - The Informant! - And Everything is Going Fine - Contagion - Haywire - Magic Mike - Side Effects - Behind the Candelabra
The Auteurs #39: Steven Soderbergh Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
The Auteurs #39: Steven Soderbergh Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
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