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Dope Opera

Soderbergh Paints a Sprawling, Pessimistic Picture of the War on Drugs

Catherine Zeta-Jones holds her family together after her drug-baron husband is pinched by the Feds in Traffic.

By Adele Marley | Posted

Drugs sell themselves. As Chris Rock once quipped, no trafficker ever lost sleep wondering how he was going to unload all that crack.

A comic provocateur such as Rock can puncture the myths of America's War on Drugs with a one-liner, but Hollywood has spinelessly avoided any such discourse on the subject. Steven Soderbergh's new film is an exception. Traffic is a sweeping polemic, critically examining the country's current anti-drug strategies and the motivations behind them, and making the continued emphasis on targeting supply rather than demand seem like a Sisyphean endeavor at best.

Any movie that earnestly takes on a Big Issue risks being labeled a D-R-A-G by multiplex patrons, but Traffic is genuinely engaging, if only because of the visual armada Soderbergh has at his disposal. Based on the late-'80s British TV miniseries Traffik, the film deploys dozens of characters in three interwoven but distinct story threads (told through abrupt cross-cutting) that form a whole so shrewdly observant that even the film's faults seem to be part of the design.

Fixed within the film's three-part narrative are two upright Mexican cops (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) who find their south-of-the-border police work continually unraveled by bribes, threats, and blood money floated by ruthless crime cartels, the underhanded Mexican army, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Del Toro's character scrambles to keep it all together, to simultaneously hang on to his principles and avoid pissing off the wrong people, and it's a credit to the actor that a figure so mired in moral confusion and unpredictability comes off as the most fully inhabited, grounded person in the film.

Meanwhile, two undercover DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) bust a midlevel dealer (Miguel Ferrer) running his operation out of a storage locker in San Diego. They're also intent on nabbing his associate (Steven Bauer), an importer who hides the true source of his income from his unsuspecting, very pregnant society wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). After the importer's arrest, the wife's assets are seized, no thanks to their ineffectual sleazeball attorney (Dennis Quaid). After her family unit is threatened by both the DEA and her husband's thug associates, she decides to take her incarcerated spouse's business matters into her own--as it turns out, very capable--hands.

Then there's Michael Douglas, an Ohio judge whom the president names the nation's drug czar. While he's jetting off to Washington to take the reins, his princess daughter (Erika Christensen, a dead ringer for Julia Stiles) starts hitting the pipe with her prep-school pals. In about three seconds flat, she's devolved into a sweaty, foul-mouthed crack ho, turning tricks in downtown Cincinnati. In case we didn't get the heads-up about the irony at work here, both the judge's wife (Amy Irving) and his daughter's insolent squeeze (That '70s Show's Topher Grace) berate the would-be czar for being a hypocrite who's willing to shoulder the problems of a nation but won't take care of his own.

Soderbergh, who not only directs the film but shot it (taking the cinematography credit under a pseudonym), helps the audience sort out the vaguely related stories by employing deliberate color schemes, accentuated by his use of authentic locations and natural, available light: Mexico's sun-streaked, dusty streets are rendered in a sepia wash; Ohio's suffocating suburban vistas are reflected on celluloid with a chilly blue tinge. He's also a big fan of the handheld camera, a stylistic cue that communicates both realism and immediacy.

The stylization recalls Soderbergh's 1999 feature The Limey, which effectively used rich visuals, obscured chronology, cross-cutting, and flashbacks to gussy up an otherwise pedestrian noir revenge thriller. Traffic is similarly showy and lush, but here the purpose is to clarify rather than distract. Because Traffic isn't photographed, edited, or plotted in a conventional way, the viewer has to think about what he or she is seeing, has to make the connections most films spell out and spoon-feed. The jazzy style also helps get over what amounts to a public-policy treatise (not the most sure-fire big-movie material), one that most audiences won't find terribly palatable: that the policy in question is fucked.

Traffic posits that the people running the drug war are clueless about what's really going on, the people fighting it are helpless, and the money spent on it is useless. And, the film implies, unless the middle class is genuinely threatened by the traffic, no one in a position to change things really cares. The strategy we've been implementing for the past 30 or so years is just plain backasswards--if you examined drug trafficking as an economic model and were looking to put dealers and importers out of business, you would work on reducing the demand rather than the supply. The movie doesn't have an explanation for why we don't, but it paints such a sprawling, convincing picture of our current policy's failure that you can't help but start drawing conclusions of your own.

The film's one major drawback is that it's obviously manipulative: Characters spout speeches designed to sum up a particular position on drug abatement, to the detriment of Soderbergh's otherwise carefully crafted naturalism. And the thread about the drug czar's daughter, and her all-American wholesomeness being sullied by all the disgusting things she does to get her fix, plays to the audience's sympathy in a rather ham-handed way. (It's like when The Sun runs a front-page story on some Carroll County teen's overdose, coverage it would never muster if the same thing happened to an inner-city high schooler.)

But Soderbergh seems to know that pandering to his audience in this way merely illustrates his point, articulating the very hypocrisy the movie seeks to expose. It's a neat trick, engineering a film in which even the defects are valuable. Eventually, the shelf-life of the issues Traffic addresses may date this dope opera, but the film's relevance to--and insight into--this particular point in history makes it well worth a look.

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