Featuring well over one hundred speaking parts over the course of a running time that just misses the two-and-a-half-hour mark, Steven Soderbergh's sprawling drama Traffic is indeed jam-packed, but never does it reach a stall. This saga of the so-called "war" on drugs is a masterwork of superb performance, smart writing--and, most of all, the mark of a director who not only knows what he wants, but also exactly how to make his ambitious vision a glorious reality.
Unlike most multicharacter pastiches, such as the ones made by Robert Altman, or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, the characters of Traffic's three tales don't constantly crisscross, nor are they all brought together by a big event. Intersections are rare in Traffic, and the junctions that do occur are often fleeting. Yet the stories are strongly linked by their greater thematic concern: to vividly illustrate how the drug problem touches all corners of the country, all walks of life, from people on the harsh urban streets to those in lavish upper-class neighborhoods. Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan, working from the '80s British miniseries Traffik, steadfastly refuse to force easy, comforting conclusions from difficult and complex situations; as in real life, one is left to decide for oneself who or what is right, and what it all means.
While Traffic is essentially about the war on drugs in America, the film's starting point is the almost-exclusively south-of-the-border (and nearly-completely Spanish-language) story of Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro, doing away with his annoying tics and delivering a career performance), an average Tijuana State policeman who is given the opportunity for greater prestige by working for General Salazar's (Tomas Milian) efforts against the drug cartels. Just north of the border in San Diego is the setting for another thread, in which very pregnant European √©migr√© Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones, her real-life condition adding a deeper layer to her role) learns that the pampered lifestyle provided by husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) comes from dabblings in drugs, not legit business ventures. The film also travels a bit northwest to Cincinnati, the third central locale, where Caroline (Erika Christensen), the teenage daughter of newly-appointed U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), brings her father's enemy much closer to home than he could have ever imagined.
Soderbergh effortlessly weaves the individual strands into a tapestry that is at once cohesive and characterized by its contrasting colors. The latter can be taken in a literal sense--Soderbergh, under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" (his father's name), shot the film himself, and he gave each part of the film its own distinct look: grainy, washed-out yellow for Mexico; a solemn blue sheen for Cincinnati; sun-drenched full color for San Diego. Each, of course, is representative of the prevailing mood: the arid amorality of the all-powerful drug cartels; the sad desperation of daughter and father; the sparkle of a too-good-to-be-true standard of living. The intimacy and realism of the characters and their situations, aided immeasurably by Soderbergh's hand-held documentary-style lensing, smooth out any possible seams between the pieces.
Traffic may sound like a grim exercise in arty pretense, but the weightiness of the subject matter doesn't necessarily keep the film from being an accessible entertainment. This element is largely satisfied in San Diego, where Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman make a crack seriocomic team as FBI agents surveilling the Ayala home and protecting a key witness (Miguel Ferrer); this thread also delivers its share of unpredictable twists. The other two sections are by their very basic premises--power struggles between drug lords and overmatched law enforcement, teen substance abuse--darker and hence less open to offering more standard genre satisfactions, but t
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