64 – Traffic

A conservative, family-oriented judge is appointed to the post of U.S. Drug Czar. A somewhat corrupt Mexican cop undergoes a series of crises of conscience. A woman watches as her husband is taken away by the police on charges of drug smuggling. A 16-year-old golden child dabbles in soft and hard drugs.

See the theme? Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is an odyssey painted on a wide canvas, as the general theme of drugs is expressed in how drugs are produced, how they arrive in the United States from Mexico, how they are bought, who buys them, and what happens to some who use them. It is not a preachy film, however, and that’s one of the reasons this movie works.

Michael Douglas plays the new drug czar, and his mission is to win the war on drugs. But how to win such a war? And is it even winnable? This has never been an issue with easy solutions, and Soderbergh is smart enough not to give us a mythical cure-all. Wakefield (Douglas) is a convinced, honest man who wants to do the right thing – but even with his judicial experience, he has no idea how to proceed. His job is, in some ways, devoid of actual meaning. He is a figurehead, a symbol to the people that stands for Something Being Done on behalf of the government to stop the growing drug problem.

Wakefield wants to bring down the two biggest cartels in Mexico, both of which are smuggling drugs into the U.S. on a magnificent scale. On the Mexican side, a policeman named Javier (Benicio del Toro) first turns a blind eye to the corruption and smuggling, since the cartels are being fought (somewhat offhandedly) by General Salazar, a despot in the making. Javier is recruited by Salazar to join his task force dedicated to eradicating the cartels, and we’re given a close glimpse at how such “task forces” operate. Javier, like Wakefield, is a very conflicted man. Corruption is prevalent in the Mexican police force, according to the movie, but when it comes to more serious crimes, Javier is not sure what to do.

Ana (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the wife of a wealthy businessman (Steven Bauer). When her husband is arrested under suspicion of drug smuggling, Ana must learn how to cope – her neighbors and friends want nothing to do with her, and only one trusted confidant (Dennis Quaid) seems to be on her side. But whose side is Ana on?

Wakefield’s young daughter, a National Merit Scholar finalist and class brain, is rapidly becoming an addict to serious drugs. Her friends are also addicts, and when they get together it’s a lot like those old existentialist/philosophical discussions that old-time hippies used to have – only without the profundity. These kids are as deep as a puddle.

This beautifully crafted film brings all of these characters together in some way or another – they’re not always in scenes together, but what one character does might affect another character’s actions. And, of course, the underlying moral issue of what to do about the drug problem appears throughout, no matter if the setting is rural Mexico or San Diego,
California.

The cinematography of a film is hardly ever what draws people to watch a movie, but it should be noted that this movie does some interesting things with the camera. For example, all of the shots in Mexico are in a grainy yellowish filter, while the U.S. shots are clear and nonfiltered. This might be to symbolize the differences in economic viability, or it could be that Soderbergh simply wanted to make sure people knew each scene’s setting.

As for the performances themselves, Douglas is aces as the drug czar (a demotion from president, which he played in The American President), and Zeta-Jones is fine as the victimized Ana. But it’s the Oscar-nominated del Toro who’s wonderful as the complex Javier, and he stands a good chance of taking home the statue.

The movie itself was nominated for Best Picture (and Soderbergh earned a directing nod, too), and deservedly so. It’s two-and-a-half hours long, though, so don’t make the same mistake I did and get to the theater late. I had to sit in the first row for 144 minutes. Not fun. My spine telescoped.

Traffic: 8.5

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