Okay, yes, our review of Soderbergh's "drugs are bad" film is long overdue, but it's written by Judge Mike Pinsky, so just put that in your pipe and smoke it.
"They talk like they're conspiring to conspire."—Ray Castro (Luis Guzman)
Jacques Derrida writes, in "Plato's Pharmacy," "Operating through seduction, the pharmakon makes one stray from one's general, natural, habitual paths and laws" (70). He is talking, of course, of the drug: that which is both poison and cure. It draws us, as if by magic (in Greek, it is related to the word for "wizard"), into another world.
There is such a magical moment in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, where Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen), daughter of the newly appointed Drug Czar (Michael Douglas), feels the drugs hit her system. A single tear rolls down her cheek, and she folds in on herself. But for all that, we never see why she engages in this act of sorcery. We only know how.
Unlike Darren Aronofsky's psychological exploration of the roots of addiction in Requiem for a Dream, which came out the same year as Traffic, Soderbergh's film is more interested in the sociological terrain of drugs. Taking its cue from the British mini-series Traffik, Stephen Gaghan's rambling screenplay breaks down into three major plot threads, each of which director Soderbergh (acting as his cinematographer) color-codes for easy access. Michael Douglas leads in the blue section of the film, as a politician who knows nothing about drug culture, but must learn the hard way when he discovers his daughter's addiction. Meanwhile, over in San Diego (overlit to an almost garish neon), the wife of a local drug connection (Catherine Zeta-Jones) tries to slip past a pair of undercover cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) and her seedy lawyer (Dennis Quaid) to save her husband and family. Meanwhile, down in Mexico (tinted yellow and photographed with a weird strobe effect), a corrupt cop (Benicio Del Toro) comes under the wing of an army chieftain (Thomas Milian), who is looking to muscle in on the local cartel for a piece of the action.
This all makes Traffic seem rather complicated. In truth, photographic tricks aside, the plot threads of the film are pretty easy to distinguish from one another based on their relative quality. The best is the Mexican sequence, driven by a carefully moderated performance by the usually laconic Del Toro. In his hands, Javier develops into a sympathetic character who is caught in the middle of an impossible situation. Among Mexican law enforcement (at least according to the film), one must be corrupt to survive, and Javier plays the system to gain what little he can. In a candid moment in a swimming pool, he slips to two DEA agents looking to turn him that his real desire is simply to help the local kids get lights for their baseball park. Javier wants to do good, but in order to do so, he must do evil. To some extent, he is a contemporary version of the hard-boiled detective, bluffing his way past all sides in order to both survive and achieve some moral compromise he can psychologically deal with.
Throughout Traffic, the "drug war" becomes a zero-sum game in which damage must be done in order to protect or create or prosper. For Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), protecting her children means embracing her husband's destructive occupation. It is pure pragmatism, and she seems just as capable of hiring an assassin as she is of bringing the cops tailing her some cookies. Unfortunately, Zeta-Jones does not quite pull in enough of the viewer's sympathy, and her character only develops in fits and starts. The result is a subplot that feels padded and unfocused. Instead, we long to hear more banter between Cheadle and Guzman.
But the weakest subplot, at least dramatically, is the Wakefield story. While Michael Douglas plays his usual chilly and frustrated male-in-crisis, most of what he is given to do by the screenplay is to stand around and listen to endless speeches about the politics of the drug trade. From a cocktail party with members of Congress to a tour of a drug-enforcement warehouse, Soderbergh slips into documentary mode very often. Indeed, there are far too many didactic scenes in Traffic, as Gaghan's script insists on telling, and telling, and telling again, and sometimes forgetting to show. The Mexico subplot does not suffer this so much, which is probably why it is the most engaging section of the film. But Judge Wakefield's tour of the drug underworld frequently comes across as stiff, and many scenes function primarily to catalog the aspects of drug culture in an almost encyclopedic fashion. Okay, here is the scene where we show an overdose. Here is the scene where we show how ruthless cartel bosses are. And so on.
Perhaps it is the afterimage of Traffic's documentary origins, but the film does not feel driven by the characters. Rather, the characters are driven around by the machinations of the camera-as-tour-guide, in an obsessive quest to inventory drug culture. In order to counter any impression of racism in the film, Caroline's terminally annoying boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) must make a speech about racial politics. The film often insists on talking about itself like this, as if every point must be brought into the open, lest we be left with some uncomfortable silence. When Soderbergh allows the film to show and not just tell, Traffic works—just often enough to be an interesting movie.
Mirroring Traffic's sense of self-importance—Hollywood stars taking scale to make an "independent" movie about a serious "issue"—Criterion has packaged the movie in an impressive two-disc set. Disc One offers the feature in an anamorphic transfer. Of course, the film's digital color processing and photographic strobing gives many scenes an oddly pixilated quality, which was even evident in the theater. Traffic is doubtless a difficult movie to transfer to DVD, and Criterion does a fine job. Although Soderbergh mixes all the dialogue in the film in mono and only allows the ambient music to play in stereo, the disc offers audio mixes in 5.1 and 2.0. Look for the dialogue and sound effects to stay in the center though, as per Soderbergh's intentions.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Gaghan take up duties for the first of three commentary tracks. The director discusses the technical steps he took to achieve his "vérité aesthetic," and the two men offer a fairly breezy overview of the making of the film. The second commentary track features producers Laura Bickford (who dominates the conversation), Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz (the latter two brought aboard when their own "drug war" project was folded into this one) and technical consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien. The producers talk mostly about the process of adapting the miniseries and real world events for the film. The consultants offer a textbook on drug culture from both the criminal (Golden, an expert on Mexican politics) and law enforcement (Chretien, formerly of the DEA) perspectives. A third commentary track spotlights composer Cliff Martinez, who chats over an isolated music score. While much of the audience is not even likely to notice the discrete use of ambient music, Martinez's comments suggest that a lot of thought went into planning the film's soundscape.
Disc Two is packed with plenty of extras, little of which you are likely to watch more than once. Nearly a half-hour of deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary by Soderbergh, feel pretty much like the rest of the film: Del Toro's work is great, Zeta-Jones's scenes border on soap opera, and Douglas is stuck with heavy-handed exposition. Raw footage, with multiple camera angles, is also provided of the El Paso Intelligence Center and a drug warehouse not used in the film, both with commentary by Chretien, who describes the warehouse as a "Costco setting," suggesting the mundane side to drug interdiction. Raw footage is also provided of Seth's speech about the "white men in power" and the cocktail party, in which politicians, lobbyists, and even MTV's Chris Connelly show off for 25 minutes about their knowledge of the drug war. Some of these comments are quite cogent, and some are empty political rhetoric. Check this out before casting your vote next election.
The disc also includes a set of technical demonstrations, from the film's color processing, to the editing (Stephen Mirrione discusses strategies for conveying perspective and mood through editing choices), to the dialogue and sound. Throughout, all these technicians seem quite conscious of story and performance, and try to use their gadgets to accentuate these qualities, rather than dryly constructing the film as an end in itself. Criterion also includes some trailers and a set of on-disc trading cards for the U.S. Customs' drug-sniffing dogs. There are a lot of labs and golden retrievers. No schnauzers?
While Traffic, and Criterion's thorough DVD release, take themselves very seriously, in the end, I cannot help but be reminded of the old anti-drug films of the 1930s. You remember, things like Reefer Madness and Marijuana: Weed with Roots in Hell. Not that Traffic is by any means campy or inaccurate. Quite the contrary: it works a bit too hard to establish itself as an accurate, hyperdetailed tour of the world of drug trafficking. But those old drug movies were very pushy in their message. Look at how evil drugs are, they would hammer over and over. Evil, evil, evil. In some way, Traffic seems caught in a similar bind. While it admits that the drug trade is really about power and wealth, it seems at a loss to explain why addicts continue to patronize this ancient institution. The best Caroline can come up with at her treatment meeting is to say that she is "angry." With all the photographic tricks and sprawling narrative, Traffic, except perhaps in its Mexican scenes, is cold, almost clinical, in its appraisal of the drug trade. It feels like watching pieces move on a chessboard without human agency, without psychological desire. If we are to ever get a handle on what makes the pharmakon both poison and cure, we have to look its seductiveness, at why we want it. In this, for all Traffic's attempts to function as an encyclopedia of the drug war, something is missing at the very heart of Soderbergh's film: the human element.
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• Commentary Track by Steven Soderbergh and Stephen Gaghan
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