Criterion // 2000 // 147 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 17th, 2012
No One Gets Away Clean
Mea culpa. When Traffic first appeared back in 2000, I completely dismissed it. It's one of the few films I've walked out on in a theater. Forgive me, I was young. If I was going to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour movie about the drug war, I wanted a take-no-prisoners screed that exposed the hypocrisy, duplicity, and abject failure of the War on Drugs. What Steven Soderbergh gave me was a subtle meditation, one pitched at a public who largely don't know or care about the terrible price we all pay to fight a war on some drugs. It's been twelve years since Soderbergh took home his little gold statue for Traffic. Now, thanks to Criterion's Blu-ray update of their already excellent DVD, we all have the chance to reevaluate the film.
Traffic looks at the War on Drugs from four interlocking perspectives that take the viewer from the source in Mexico to the highest echelons of power in Washington, D.C. Along the way, we meet the new drug czar (Michael Douglas, Wall Street), his drug-taking daughter (Erika Christensen, Parenthood), a midlevel supplier's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment), and a cop trying to stop the drug trade in Mexico (Benecio Del Toro, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
Back in 2000, Traffic was a total anomaly. Soderbergh insisted that it was essentially an independent film, and the fact that every major studio turned it down in the production stage only reinforces that view. Though it has some big stars, the film doesn't spend the majority of its time with any of them. The different storylines all get their own visual look, from cold and blue to brown and gritty. Though it's not quite Jean-Luc Godard territory, Soderbergh is obviously not aiming for mainstream filmmaking.
Though it looked really unconventional when it debuted, what stands out about Traffic now is just how prescient it really was. It was made in the era before films like Crash, 21 Grams, and Babel really sold audiences on the interlocking narrative, butterfly-effect film. Unlike those other films, Traffic was made by an American, which demonstrates that it doesn't take a foreign filmmaker to show an interest in international concerns. Not only does Traffic largely precede these films, but its narrative provides a solid structural grounding for the interlocking stories. More importantly, by showing viewers the drug trade from source to user to policymaker, the film has a thesis beyond the typical "We're all connected" of other films.
What struck me most about Traffic rewatching it on Blu-ray, though, was just how subtle the film can be. I mean this is a movie where the colors shift boldly between different stories, the camera moves from static long shots to jerky handheld craziness. It's also a film that tries to encapsulate everything about the drug war in two-and-a-half hours. That doesn't leave a lot of time for subtlety. That's why the drug czar's daughter has to be a user, and the wife of a drug dealer has to have no idea at all that her husband deals drugs. I'm sure these things happen, but compressing them together for a story is a bold move. And yet, Soderbergh balances that with small moments that add interesting touches to his characters and their situations. For instance, on my first viewing, I never noticed just how often the drug czar has a drink in his hand, an ironic little characterization that helps to show the hypocrisy of the drug war. It's moments like these, the tiny details that Soderbergh and company accrue, that really make the film.
As for this Blu-ray, it's everything that fans could have hoped for in a rerelease. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer was supervised by Soderbergh himself. That means some otherwise iffy choices are explained by his signature. First, the film has been opened up a bit from its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. It's also a little bit bolder in the swings it makes between the cool blue of the United States and the grit and grim of Mexico. None of these changes make or break the look of the film; it's more like Soderbergh reinterpreting his film rather than ruining it. Otherwise, this is a really sharp transfer. Maybe too sharp for some, as the grainy image in some scenes can look a bit jarring. Still, that's how it's supposed to look, and color saturation is spot on, as are black levels and grain. Just as with the previous DVD, viewers get a choice between stereo and 5.1 audio presentations, but this time both are DTS-MA tracks. Both are excellent, with clear dialogue and good balance. The 5.1 track isn't terribly active, with the surrounds used mostly for the score.
Pretty much all the extras from the previous two-disc DVD edition have made it over. They start with three separate commentaries. The first is an excellent track featuring Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan. The pair chats about technical problems, the inspiration for the story, and some of the things that didn't quite work. The second track brings together three of the film's producers (Edward Zwick, Marshal Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford) with a pair of consultants (Tim Golden and Craig Chretien). Most of this track belongs to the consultants, who discuss the reality behind the film and where it falls short. The third is a commentary that features the composer Cliff Martinez and the film's isolated score. In general I prefer when score are isolated by themselves, with the composer talking in an interview, but this track works well enough.
That's only the beginning. We get twenty-four deleted scenes, ones largely cut for time rather than quality. With these included the film would have pushed three hours. As it is, these 26 minutes of scenes provide some nice characters moments. Then we get three featurettes that cover the film's editing, the post-processing that gave each sequence its unique look, and the film's dialogue editing. Another behind-the-scenes featurette includes the raw footage from multiple angles on a several scenes, allowing the viewer to get an idea of what was captured before it was edited down for the feature. One of the odder moments on the disc features some K-9 Drug Enforcement trading cards. These are what they sound like, fourteen digital "cards" that give names and stats on these dogs. Finally the disc contains a trailer, a teaser, and some TV spots. The usual Criterion booklet contains an essay about the film from Manhola Dargis.
Traffic is long, and if you're not into the storyline it can seem interminable. Much like any multi-stranded narrative if one of the stories doesn't click for you, then waiting for a preferred story can be distracting. Some viewers (like me, initially) probably won't be able to get past the flashy visuals and disjointed narrative. Finally, some of the trading cards from the DVD edition didn't make it over, and there's nothing new to tempt fans to upgrade aside from the audiovisual presentation.
Traffic is an impressive Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion. Though there are no new extras, the vastly improved (and Soderbergh approved) audiovisual upgrade makes a double-dip a tempting proposition. For those who gave the film a pass before, this Blu-ray is also an excellent way to experience the film for the first time.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Trading Cards