PG Cooper’s Movie of the Month: Traffic (2000)

Posted: February 25, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Movie of the Month, PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

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I haven’t written a segment for “Move of the Month” since November when I covered The Departed. There has been no big reason for this, just a combination of being busy and forgetful. At any rate, I wanted to get back into it and realized I needed to review something of both high quality and relevance. Given that Steven Soderbergh has recently released his last film before his sabbatical (and possible retirement) I figured it made sense to review a Soderbergh film. What better than what is in my opinion Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece, Traffic.

The film follows several different people and their relationship to the illegal drug business. The first takes place in Mexico and deals with two police officers, Javier Rodriguez and Manolo Sanchez (Bencio del Toro and Jacob Vargas, respectively). A high ranking Mexican general named Salazar (Tomás Milián) hires the duo to work for him and bring him an assassin who works for an infamous drug cartel. The two agree, but quickly find themselves dangerously close to the drug trade of Mexico. The second story revolves around the Wakefield family living in Ohio. The father Robert (Michael Douglas) is appointed to be the drug czar and help win America’s war on drugs. Despite the many challenges he faces, Robert truly believes he can fight and win the drug war. He spends a great deal of time talking with various politicians and looking at how drugs are brought into the country in the first place. Meanwhile, Robert’s daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a high school student who is among the time students and is in a variety of extra-curricular clubs. She is also addicted to drugs. The final story follows two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) who bust drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). Ruiz is able to point them to a bigger fish, drug dealer Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). Carlos is arrested, much to the surprise of his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who had no idea what her husband’s business really was. Helena now finds herself struggling to survive without her former resources in a world she never knew she lived in.

As one can tell from the plot synopsis, Traffic is an example of hyperlink cinema, the genre of films where several stories are linked by some common elements. Now there are some hyperlink films like Babel where the are some story links but the various scenarios are related more through theme than plot. Traffic isn’t like that. All of the stories bleed into each other organically throughout and the events in one story effect what plays out in the other. The stories themselves are wonderfully constructed by writer Stephen Gaghan and the way they affect each other feels natural and real. The plot is also one full of natural turns and the viewer’s attention never wavers. Gaghan’s dialogue is also very good. While it isn’t very stylish or flashy, his writing is strong and he gives the characters a lot of interesting things to say.

Steven Soderbergh’s directorial talents add a lot to the film. The most obvious and striking decision Soderbergh makes is shooting the three different stories in three different styles. The segments in Mexico are shot with a handheld camera in a very gritty and dirty way, Robert Wakefield’s story is short with a lot of dark blue in the colour scheme which gives a cold feel, and the DEA story is shot more traditionally. This helps distinguish the three sections, but I think the decision runs deeper than that. The reason I theorize the Mexican segments are shot in a gritty way with a lot of harsh yellows is to visually show that Mexico is at the heart of the drug trade. The visuals tell the audience that Mexico is where the drug trade is the most dirty and primal. The Wakefield segments are shot in dark blue to show how detached the politicians fighting the drug war are from the issue. They aren’t actually out on the frontlines. Finally, the DEA segment is shot in the most standard way because it represents the half-way point between the grittiness of the Mexico storyline and the detachment of the Wakefield storyline. Both the dealers and cops of the DEA story aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, but they also aren’t in the thick of the drug trade the same way the Mexican dealers and cops are. The cinematography represents the neutral stance.

In addition to the cinematography, Soderbergh adds much more to the film. He is able to craft several very suspenseful moments throughout and generally displays a great deal of control over the film. The editing is also very tight in both how individual scenes play out and how the movie’s pace is overall. The man also has an eye for compelling images and he uses Cliff Martinez’ haunting score very well.

The cast here is phenomenal and is arguably the best cast of any Soderbergh film. Though definitely an ensemble cast, when could point out the leads as being Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In addition to the heavy amount of screen time, it is those three characters who have the most complete arcs. I want spoil those arcs so I’ll just say they are very interesting and performed well. All three give very powerful performances in a way that still feels real. Benicio del Toro especially gives a performance which is extremely compelling but also very subtle. He has a tough role which could have come off as fake and is made even more challenging by the fact that so much of the character’s conflicts are internalized. In fact I could see many people overlooking del Toro’s excellent work because it’s so subtle. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case and the man was awarded an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Great work is also done by the likes of Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace, Tomás Milián, Erika Christensen, Miguel Ferrer, and many others.

Thematically, Traffic is of course about the drug trade in America. The film thoroughly analyzes the issue from all walks of life and just about everyone involved in the process is looked at. The film looks at the issue in an interesting way. It acknowledges how hard the war on drugs is but does not dismiss the importance of fighting said battle either. There are two messages at the heart of the film. The first is the importance of support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The second is that when fighting against drug abuse it is important to remain an emotional attachment to the struggle. Now some may argue that the film’s themes aren’t very relevant given how the war on drugs hasn’t been a top priority in the United States after 9/11 and the war on terror become the center issue. If anything, I think Traffic’s relevance has only increased. Even though the war on drugs isn’t top priority, Traffic is here to remind everyone that the drug trade is still a problem in the world.

To me, Traffic is perfect filmmaking. It’s thematically deep and important, features a great cast, top-notch direction, ambition, and technical skill. It’s everything I want in film and really displays why I love the art form so much in the first place. I strongly recommend Traffic to just about anybody. Whether you’re an admirer of film, great acting, great storytelling, or you just take an interest in political issues like the drug trade, Traffic has a lot to offer you.

Rating: A+

Comments
  1. CMrok93 says:

    Not my favorite Soderbergh flick, even though that may sound like sacrilege in some areas, but I will still admit its a pretty damn good flick that has a message, but doesn’t hit you over-the-head with it. Also, the cast is amazing and Del Toro was perfectly-cast here. Good review PG.

  2. vinnieh says:

    I’ve been meaning to watch this one for a while. Thanks for the reminder with this amazing review, it really looks like an excellent movie.

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