Traffic - Steven Soderbergh

A tough take on world of drug trafficking.

You already know that “Traffic” took home four Academy Awards this year.

You also know that director Stephen Soderbergh, the man with movies like “Sex, Lies & Videotape”, “The Limey”, “Kafka”, and “Erin Brockovich” to his credit, won an Oscar for Best Director.

What you may not know is that Soderbergh was also the cinematographer for the film, which quite explains its visual genius.

Soderbergh’s prodigious cinematic acumen has rendered him another success, this time harnessing an ensemble cast, a star script and a hackneyed storyline, told with difference. The movie tells three different stories, with dissimilar backdrops, all hanging on a parallel thread. The opening - the Mexican border scene, with two committed policemen Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his close counterpart Manolo Sanchez, attempting to bust local drug practices.

Focus Washington, U.S. where Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is christened the new anti-drug czar by the President. Determined to take the drug dilemma head on, Wakefield adopts a hardnosed stand, gathering his posse and gets serious about his new job. However, his fortitude is blunted on discovering the narcotic strain leading right home, where his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is closer to an assortment of drugs than she is to her family.

While in San Diego, Montel Gorden (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), two undercover DEA agents, using a mid-level trafficker, help nab an affluent drug dealer. Catherine Zeta-Jones, plays Helena, the pregnant wife of the drug lord, whose ignorance about her husband’s underhand business leads to a rude discovery upon his arrest.

Adapted from the late 80s British mini-series “Traffik”, screenplay writer Stephen Gaghan roped in an Oscar for Best Screenplay, while film editor Stephen Mirrione has Best Editor to his acclaim. With one hundred and thirty-five speaking roles, and a capable cast, it’s quite a chore pinpointing a single actor as better than the rest. All played their roles well, but Benicio Del Toro did not win Best Supporting Actor for his enunciation alone. Portraying his character with subdued intensity and rare exactness, you love watching him, even though you have to read the English subtitles to understand what he says. Erika Christensen scores a hundred points for her depiction of a dope induced teenager, while Topher Grace, the lead in “That 70s show” makes his debut film appearance.

Soderbergh, using camera filters and other paraphernalia gives you three distinct backdrops. The Mexican scene - a gritty, tobacco yellow; Washington - a sterile blue haze; and San Diego - bright sun-washed vividness. This use of colour alone has boosted the film’s visual appeal. Using one hundred and fifteen shooting locales, and capturing the right depth and distance on camera, the film has met the benchmark for good picture making.

“Traffic” is the kind of movie that can either bore you to Britain and back, or it can keep you enthralled till its very end. This is a serious movie about a very serious issue, and other than a couple of witticisms you cannot expect an idle watch. It’s a tough take on the trafficking of drugs between the American and Mexican borders, zeroing in on the dirt and politics most other films decide to gloss over.

What makes this one stick out like a sore thumb? For one thing, it tells of the problem like it is, without hoping to advocate ideals or weave a heroic yarn. While many may find the slow pace and the absence of any fantastic action sequences grating, those hanging on to the plot will find it worth their while. This is not a film for those expecting an evening of intense melodrama, or overstated visuals, and especially not for those who expect a clichéd finale!

This article was first published on 26 Jul 2001.