“Is this like freebasing?”
“Not like, it is.”
It was Richard Nixon who brought the “War on Drugs” phrase into the American consciousness, formally, in an effort to get illicit substances off of streets. Over 40 years later and over 50 billion annually spent on the effort, is it worth it? In Mexico, police officers Javier (Benicio Del Toro), and Manolo (Jacob Vargas), do what they can to clean up their area. Their efforts get noticed by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), a noteworthy law enforcement official who wants the two to take down one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels to further better the country.
Out in San Diego, DEA officers Montell (Don Cheadle), and Ray (Luis Guzman), are able to apprehend one of the United States’ biggest dealers, who gives up his boss in exchange for a lighter sentence. This impacts Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant wife and mother who is now without a husband and father. Finally, in Washington D.C., Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), has been appointed as the country’s new drug czar. His number one priority? Figuring out how to be a victor in the War on Drugs, a war that may hit closer to home than he could ever imagine.
Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brokovich) asks one simple question in Traffic, one that everyone has asked since Nixon and others have made it a mission to tackle the War on Drugs. Is it really worth the effort? Though Soderbergh’s stance appears to be semi-clear—to yours truly at least—it never feels like he’s trying to overtly say its right or wrong to do so, but that simply, there will always be challenges to overcome that may not have clear answers.
Through the use of three intriguing concurrent stories, Soderbergh shows that this particular war is one that can make anyone, and everyone, powerless. No one “main” character is one-dimensional; alll have flaws and strengths that are brought to light. As a result, the story, already but not explicitly inspired by actual events, feels even realer.
Despite the awards and nominations Traffic received, the aspect that people may remember the most might very well be the visual one. Soderbergh uses three distinct colors filters to differentiate between the three storylines and give them a recognizable feel, whether it be the super cool blue hue of the Wakefield storyline (feels a little overdone, at times), the more traditional but slightly artificial look of the Ayala storyline, or the yellow-drenched saturation and even horror-like feel of the Mexico storyline.
The old saying of the “whole being greater than the sum of its parts” is one that applies to a lot of things. With Traffic, however, I’m not sure that is correct. They are interconnected, yet don’t always feel like they are, at least in the early going. Which, is a shame because all three stories are compelling, to the level that one may wonder how each would do if they were given sole attention to play out. The first half suffers from a momentum standpoint as once the viewer really begins to get into one storyline, Soderbergh moves onto the next one, which effectively kills the build that each subsequent plot had. Credit goes to writer Stephen Gaghan as it pertains to the second half, though, as all three storylines begin to snap into place and logically flow into each other with no momentum compromised.
Traffic is absolutely stacked with a beefed-up cast that still holds weight and clout 15 years later. Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luis Guzman are all names that have turned in great work over the years and do so again here, though no one out of this group definitively excels…except Del Toro.
Even amid a bevvy of multidimensional characters, his is easily the most complex and mysterious, and the fact that he delivers almost all of it in Spanish is all the more impressive. His character, and storyline, is one that easily could have been made into a full movie. Supporting characters anchored by Erika Christensen, Clifton Collins, Jr., and Miguel Ferrer serve as important catalysts to many of the story’s linking points. The only negative with a few of the characters is that their actions/character arcs feel a bit rushed, especially as there’s no real timeline context given in the movie. I am sometimes against time stamps, but would have appreciated one in dialogue every now and then.
With all of the stories present, Traffic could have been bloated, dull, and full of emptiness. And while its three-pronged story takes some time to come together as one, a superb cast, unique filming techniques, and an effort to ultimately let viewers decipher the message makes Traffic a compelling watch for anyone mildly interested in the War on Drugs from a macro and micro level.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, screenrant.com, and imagefreehd.com.
Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson