Awash in "Movie of the Year" buzz almost since its inception, Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling, ambitious drug war epic Traffic has finally arrived. If recent history is our guide, it will meet with hyperbolic accolades and vindictive backlash in rapid succession, if not simultaneously. That’s how the expectations game works in this age of hype, and Soderbergh – after a string of critical successes (Schizopolis, Out of Sight, The Limey) and a big commercial hit earlier this year (Erin Brockovich) – is a sitting duck. But Traffic is neither the savior of the 2000 moviegoing season nor Soderbergh’s fall from grace. Often astonishing, occasionally baffling, it’s an intelligent and dynamic piece of filmmaking that ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Juggling multiple storylines, a cast of thousands (or at least hundreds), and a dizzying array of locations that spans the continent, Traffic plays like a six-hour miniseries crammed into a 142-minute running time. There’s a good reason for that: the screenplay by Stephen Gaghan is based on the 1989 British miniseries Traffik, a top-to-bottom look at the international narcotics trade from the poppy fields of Pakistan to the office of Britain’s top drug enforcement officer. Soderbergh and Gaghan have retained the structure of their source material, if not all the details. It is now North America where the three primary plot threads unspool, intertwine, and eventually converge.
The action begins in Mexico with Tijuana cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) busting up a cocaine air drop before being busted themselves by General Salazar, Mexico’s nominal drug czar. We then meet Salazar’s American counterpart, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a conservative Ohio Supreme Court justice who has just been named to the president’s cabinet as the nation’s point man in the War on Drugs. That war is in full throttle in San Diego, where DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) have taken down a big time smuggler and cut him an immunity deal in exchange for his testimony against the local kingpin, Carlos Ayala. Ayala’s wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to this point ignorant of her husband’s involvement in illegal activities, quickly wises up and moves to hold the crumbling Ayala empire together.
As Traffic‘s focus shifts between these arenas, so does the look of the movie. Specially processed film stocks give the Mexican segments a sandblasted radiance; at times, the image seems to be aging and crumbling before our eyes, a visual corollary to the oozing corruption and crippling poverty on display. By contrast, drug czar Wakefield moves through a world of cool blues and shimmering surfaces, whether on his home turf of Cincinnati or navigating the power corridors of Washington, DC. The San Diego scenes boast a warm, sun-dappled glow; indeed much of Traffic was shot using natural light sources with a handheld camera operated by Soderbergh himself. The net effect is immediacy, and the technique allows the director to drop his cast into real-life situations. One minute Michael Douglas is talking policy with the likes of Orrin Hatch and William Weld, the next he’s observing actual drug busts in progress at the Mexican border – two ends of a single continuum.
Gradually the links between the disparate storylines emerge, and that’s what Traffic is about: connections. The word has a double meaning here; "connection" is synonymous with "dope dealer," of course, but it’s also a neat summation of the insurmountable nature of the drug problem in America. We see where the coke and heroin comes from, and where it ends up, and everyone along the way is implicated. This notion hits home for Wakefield when he learns his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has been experimenting with freebase. In one of the film’s most startling moments, Wakefield searches the family bathroom for Caroline’s works just as the drugs are hitting her bloodstream. Her eyes glaze over, a languid grin spreads across her lips, and the palpable rush she conveys instantly makes a joke of her father’s new job. The movie is loaded with moments like this, where meaning and motivation are expressed in near-subliminal hits of imagery.
So far, so good – so what’s the problem? Part of it lies in the unsatisfying resolution of Traffic‘s narrative tangle. In a sense, Soderbergh may have outsmarted himself. Clearly he seeks to avoid transforming the movie into a heavy-handed anti-drug or anti-Drug War polemic. (Exhibit A: The fraudulent Reaganite hysteria of inexplicable critics’ darling Requiem for a Dream, which culminates in an overheated spasm of self-righteous moral outrage that makes Reefer Madness look like a Cheech and Chong movie.) But when it comes to Traffic‘s closing scenes, he hasn’t really found a solution to his dilemma. The rouse-the-troops rhetoric we might expect from an Oliver Stone is largely absent, but it hasn’t been replaced with anything that works in dramatic terms. It’s hard to say what would work, though, because the one connection the movie never makes is an emotional one.
"Altmanesque" is the preferred critical shorthand for multi-character dramas with overlapping narratives, but the term is even less appropriate here than it was for 1999′s end-of-the-year omnibus Magnolia. At their best, Altman’s movies construct a space for an organic community to live and breathe; the events themselves are given no more weight than the offhand gesture or spontaneous, half-heard insight. To say that Traffic is more plot-driven than, for instance, MASH or Short Cuts is an understatement; it’s almost nothing but plot, an intricate web of incident that’s too tightly strung. The genius of Out of Sight was the way it so miraculously captured Elmore Leonard’s gift for balancing twisty yarn spinning with downtime for vivid character interaction. That spirit emerges only sporadically here, mostly in the form of Cheadle and Guzman as the DEA agents who seem to be visiting from a Soderbergh movie we’d rather be watching. Their testy exchanges embody what’s most achingly absent in Traffic – the playful absurdist humor that sparked Soderbergh’s rebirth as a filmmaker in 1997′s Schizopolis. That criminally underseen experiment in communication breakdown lit a creative fire under the director that blazed through Out of Sight, The Limey, and – to a lesser extent – Erin Brockovich. But here, as in Brockovich, that fire is dampened by a strained reach for significance.
Traffic‘s shortcomings are by no means fatal; it’s still more inventive and challenging than almost any other American release this year. But it would be a disservice to overpraise the film at the expense of Soderbergh’s more neglected work of the past few years just because it deals with award-friendly issues. It’s probably a good sign that his next announced project is a remake of the Rat Pack caper Ocean’s Eleven. The last thing he needs right now is to succumb to Oscar-itis – and it’s the last thing we need, too.