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Issue No. 275 December 28-January 4, 2001


Traffic report

Steven Soderbergh's latest film tackles drugs, lies and surveillance tape

By Mike D'Angelo

It's funny how immediately a movie can grab you, or lose you—and remarkable how often that initial, knee-jerk impression proves to be absolutely correct. Not more than 30 seconds of The Perfect Storm had elapsed, for example, before I started to slump in my seat; nothing whatsoever had happened yet (if memory serves, the opening shot is just a standard-issue 'copter-over-the-ocean deal), but somehow it already felt simultaneously listless and bombastic, and that feeling persisted through the closing credits. Its aesthetic essence was somehow detectable in those first few frames, as if the light spilling around the perimeter of the screen were the movie's aura.

On the flip side, however, consider Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing examination of the Mexican-American drug trade. In what may have been intended as a dry joke, the film's first image is that of a car parked in the middle of a burnt-orange desert nowhere, miles from anything remotely resembling gridlock. Inside the car sit two plainclothes Mexican cops, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), trading idle banter as they wait to make a bust. Mid-anecdote, Rodriguez opens the car door, casually spits onto the sand, then closes the door again, continuing his story. Whether that apparently inconsequential moment was detailed in Stephen Gaghan's script, or suggested by Soderbergh, or improvised by Del Toro, I have no idea. What I do know is this: Already, I was sold.

It's all about verisimilitude, really. Loosely inspired by a U.K. miniseries, Traffic may be the year's most ambitious American movie, its sprawling narrative encompassing a dozen disparate characters—from incoming U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) to a freebasing prep-school student (Topher Grace). We meet undercover DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman); rich society dames (notably Catherine Zeta-Jones); a weaselly Mexican hit man (Clifton Collins Jr.); a dead-eyed ghetto dealer (Joel Torres). And every character, regardless of race, class or national origin, seems to be leading a life that exists beyond the borders of the frame. Traffic tackles the drug issue from virtually every conceivable angle with intelligence and conviction, but what makes it sing are the throwaway details—incidental lines and gestures that suggest, both by their familiarity and by their irrelevance, that this sometimes melodramatic epic takes place in the world we ourselves inhabit. "Put this down here, okay?" instructs Zeta-Jones, placing her young son's golf club on the floor of the family car's backseat. "That's where Tiger Woods keeps it."

Balancing pessimism with hope, despair with transcendence, Traffic depicts the drug war as the well-meaning but ultimately futile endeavor that most sensible people long ago concluded it to be. An early montage sequence finds Wakefield besieged at a Washington party by numerous politicos (Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Jeff Podolsky—all play themselves), each of whom offers him a word of advice, a policy initiative, a stern warning. Complementing his glum journey of discovery—complicated by a development I'll address in a moment—are numerous tales from the trenches, including the arrest and subsequent court appearance (as a protected witness) of a medium-size trafficker (Miguel Ferrer) and the suspiciously passionate attempt of Mexico's General Salazar (Tomas Milian), with the help of Rodriguez and Sanchez, to destroy one of the country's two powerful cartels.

As mentioned, Traffic sweats the small stuff to frequently dazzling effect, but alas—and pace Richard Carlson, Ph.D.—it isn't all small stuff. The movie's grandiose design features two glaring miscalculations, and it's these that ultimately prevent me from concurring with the New York Film Critics Circle, which recently named Traffic the year's best picture (though it's certainly among the year's best). A cherub-cheeked teen addict (Erika Christensen) turns out to be the new drug czar's daughter; while the trajectory of her descent into rehab and prostitution is credibly harrowing, and Wakefield's anguished attempts to help her powerfully poignant, the irony feels much too neat. More damaging still is the abrupt, implausible transformation of Zeta-Jones's character from clueless trophy wife to ruthless assassin-by-proxy after her husband (Steven Bauer) is arrested for drug smuggling. Zeta-Jones hasn't mightily impressed me in the past, but frankly, I can't imagine any actress, living or dead, who could have pulled the role off, given the (necessarily) limited amount of screen time afforded it.

Such significant flaws would almost certainly stall a less formidable movie. Here, however, thanks to Soderbergh's astonishingly fluid direction and the crackerjack ensemble he's assembled, they merely amount to irritating speed bumps. Soderbergh deservedly won the NYFCC's Best Director award, but a more appropriate title would be Best Alchemist; as he demonstrated just nine months ago with Erin Brockovich, he has an uncanny ability to invigorate pedestrian material with stylistic muscle. Traffic, not surprisingly, is structured like television—multiple story lines, constant crosscutting—and in lesser hands it might well have resembled a Very Special Episode of Homicide. In a virtually unprecedented move for a film of this size, Soderbergh chose to act as his own director of photography, frequently operating the camera himself, and every shot is informed by his richly cinematic sensibility.

In a picture crammed with fine performances, Del Toro, another NYFCC winner (for Supporting Actor), will no doubt get the lion's share of attention, and his quietly charismatic juxtaposition of amusement and wariness deserves every award that'll be tossed its way. Even more impressive, for my money, is the easy rapport between Cheadle and Guzman—they're like the Mutt and Jeff of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and I'd be extremely surprised to discover that less than half of their dialogue was improvised. And though his part is probably too small to merit critics' prizes or Oscar nominations, Grace absolutely nails the obliviously obnoxious mien of a privileged teenager weaned on NPR; his self-righteous monologue in response to a remark by Wakefield ("I can't believe you brought my daughter to this place") is the film's comic high point, not least for the way his face crumples in concern the moment he's finished. It's a tiny, blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but in Traffic, despite the weighty subject matter, those are the moments to treasure.

Traffic opens Wednesday 27.

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