Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Starring: Michael Douglas, Benecio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Steven Bauer
By Alan Bacchus
Looking back on my favourite independent films of the late ‘90s/early 2000s, some survive well and others don’t (like Magnolia - ew). Despite many imitators, Traffic has lost none of its power since 2000. It’s a film about ideas, as fresh, innovative, thrilling and emotionally satisfying now as it was then.
At this time there was a whole lot of high-profile studio dreck making big noise. But it was mostly hot air – lots of tepid Hollywood product from big names like Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, What Lies Beneath), Ridley Scott (Gladiator), Gus Van Sant (Finding Forrester), Robert Redford (Legend of Baggar Vance), Ron Howard (The Grinch Whole Stole Christmas) and other 'forgettable' studio product.
It was an astonishing year for Steven Soderbergh, who had two critical hits that year, including Erin Brochovich. He was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director for both and won for Traffic.
Based on the British TV mini-series, Traffik (1989), Soderbergh’s opus captures the broad scope of the drug trafficking network in America, specifically the cartels in Mexico selling their wares in the United States. Arguably, much of the heavy lifting on this story was done by Simon Moore, who wrote the British series. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s challenge was to transport it to America, bring it down to two-and-a-half hours and make it cinematic.
It’s a simple starting point to tell this broad story – three separate threads that converge with each other in the third act. There’s Benecio del Toro’s character, Javier Rodriguez, a soft-spoken Mexican cop, who, despite using dirty tactics, has a moral conviction at heart that will emerge throughout the picture. He’s our point of view into the Mexican cartel war, in this case the Obregon/Juarez cocaine kings, whose battle incites the action in the film.
There’s also the point of view of the DEA, including officers Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzman), affable undercover partners leading the case against the American distributor of the Obregon drugs, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who, following the arrest of a low-level pawn, uses him as an informant against Ayala.
And lastly there’s the government angle with Robert Wakefield (Douglas) as the Presidential-appointed drug czar, who, while navigating his way through the drug politics of the border, is also dealing with his daughter's own drug addiction.
While one of its more famous imitators, Crash, used the same gimmicky device but with a block head treatment of its sociopolitical issues, looking back Traffic feels as credible, honest and thought-provoking intellectually as it did 12 years ago. This is due to Steven Soderbergh's precise control of his tone. Many of his key turning points could have been embellished, but at all times we can feel the restraint on the reigns whenever the film threatens to spill over into melodrama.
Soderbergh continues his fascinating creative collaboration with composer Cliff Martinez, his go-to man for his serious films. Using quiet ambient tones, both synthesized and organic, a quiet intensity brews, keeping the drama to a whisper.
And despite the truncated screen time we come to love Soderbergh’s heroes, specifically the DEA agents whom we discover are in over their heads against the powerful, unstoppable force and deep pockets of the clandestine drug cartels. It’s the same with the rogue underachiever, Javier Rodriguez, who, after witnessing the horrors of the drug war at ground zero, engineers a remarkable and heroic stance against the hand that fed him.
Of the three storylines Michael Douglas’s feels the most on the nose, specifically the dramatic irony of his daughter’s addiction competing against his responsibility as drug policeman for the country as a whole. That said, it's one of Douglas's best late-career performances. And the only other false note to reference is Dennis Quaid’s obvious turn as the shady lawyer scheming against Ayala’s pregnant wife.
But these are minor blips in an otherwise perfect movie. It’s an 'important' film recognizable as a product of its time – just as All the President’s Men and its distilled conspiratory style was a product of its time.
Traffic is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. But as a note to readers, Soderbergh’s carefully crafted colour-coded cinematography doesn’t quite hold up on Blu-ray. It takes much fiddling with your contrast/brightness settings so as not to blow out the hot spots in most of the scenes.