Rated R, 147 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Amy Irving, Albert Finney, Miguel Ferrer, Erika Christensen, James Brolin, Benjamin Bratt, Steven Bauer, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Tomas Milian, Jacob Vargas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas.
The news, earlier this year, that director Steven Soderbergh was planning a sequel to Schizopolis, his bizarre, hilarious 1996 exercise in cinematic Dadaism, seemed to me a daring move for a man who had since moved on to more marginally mainstream fare such as the brilliant Out of Sight (still George Clooney's best starring vehicle) and the equally breathtaking (if a bit obtuse) The Limey. I took the news as proof positive that the director of the groundbreaking sex, lies, and videotape hadn't yet been bowed by either his seemingly unending critical success nor by his sometimes frantic work schedule (Traffic is the second of his two films this year alone; the other, Erin Brockovich, looks like a lock for at least one Academy Award nomination.) Clearly, this is a director who doesn't much care about mainstream adulation (though it comes to him, unbidden, bolstered by an unending tide of critical kudos) and who is determined to create films that first and foremost excite him. You're unlikely to ever see Soderbergh's name above a Roman numeral-production (Schizopolis' sequel will likely be followed by some obscure Sanskrit rune or something along those lines). Which brings me to Traffic, far and away the best film of the year, and perhaps of the past decade as well. At its core, the film is a sober-minded look at the drug trade, from an all-inclusive angle that takes on both the War on Drugs' policymakers in our nation's capital to the dealers, users, cops and DEA agents on the streets, and everyone in between. Instead of taking the easy way out, with a blanket statement about the inherent evils the international drug market creates, Soderbergh (working from a script by Rules of Engagement's Stephen Gaghan, itself adapted from a BBC 4 miniseries by Simon Moore) tackles virtually every angle of the hellish business of drugs and drug control. He's like a naturalist poking around in the brush, overturning every rock he finds to reveal the slimy, crawling creatures beneath, holding them up to the light and allowing us a painfully clear-eyed view of their squirmings. In many aspects, Traffic does indeed feel like a documentary film. Soderbergh's editing style -- which he seems to refine and/or change with each new film -- is choppy and wild, and the fractious, hand-held camera work is his own. (Soderbergh acted as his own director of photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews -- and it's easy to visualize his bald, bespectacled noggin, camera at his shoulder, scurrying about and shoving the bulky rig in the actors' faces.) The film -- an ensemble work in the strictest sense of the phrase -- intertwines three distinct storylines. As the film opens, we meet Mexican cops Javier Rodriguez (Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Vargas) who intercept an airborne shipment of cocaine in the midst of the Mexican desert, only to have their haul promptly taken from them by the heavily armed General Salazar (Milian) of the Mexican Army. The corrupt (and often obscure) politicking of Mexico's involvement in the drug trade (from both the legal and illegal side of things) is Soderbergh's (and our) entrée into Traffic's byzantine world-view, and here the images are an almost jaundiced, washed-out ochre. Everything looks as though it were terribly ill and not long for this world. Then, on the other side of the border, there's newly appointed U.S. Drug Czar Robert Wakefield (Douglas), who arrives at his Washington position and his Georgetown home with a righteous fire in the belly and a keen, probing intellect. One thing he's overlooked, however, is his daughter Caroline's (Christensen) rich-kid, recreational drug use. She and her prep-school buddies lounge around daddy's manse and kill time by freebasing coke and whining about the vagaries of being young, rich, and white in America. If her pharmacological downfall -- tracked with an unblinking, near-clinical eye by Soderbergh -- weren't so jarringly horrific you'd almost think these idle, vacuous scions were getting what they deserved. In the film's third narrative skein are DEA agents Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzman), who nail drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) and leave his hapless, unknowing wife Helena (Zeta-Jones) suddenly adrift in a hell of unpayable mortgages and general familial destruction. All three of these complex storylines are interwoven so skillfully that the whole nasty affair plays out like a modern-day Dickens novel, if A Tale of Two Cities had featured shoot-outs and teenage whoring. Unlike the pale, dry scenes on the Mexican side of the border, Soderbergh shoots the Washington and Georgetown locales through a heavy blue filter, emphasizing the duplicitous, shadowy goings-on. On either side of this so-called "war," however, the level of intrigue is virtually equal: There are no good guys in Soderbergh's tale, and even those closest to the law are tainted. Traffic, surprisingly, features a couple of the year's best cameos: Real-life U.S. politicians, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer, turn up in a D.C. party scene. In such a massive, thoroughly impressive cast as this one, it's difficult to single out a single actor as The One, but Benicio Del Toro's scruffy Tijuana cop is, frankly, a revelation. Del Toro has shone before -- his Dr. Gonzo in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was an impressively surreal feat -- but his jaw-droppingly smooth portrayal of Javier Rodriguez, a generally decent sort of man caught up in a web of officially sanctioned bullshit so sublime and massive that its very existence boggles the mind, is amazing. His is the sort of performance that Best Actor awards are made for, and this one role single-handedly redeems an entire year's worth of multiplex crud. Nearly as amazing is Erika Christensen's long, slow ride to hell as Caroline. By the time Michael Douglas hits the streets to search for his lost progeny, it's like George C. Scott's similar odyssey in Hardcore, only worse. There's not a bad or flat performance on display here, an amazing thing given the size, scope, and running time (147 minutes) of the film. What's even more amazing is the fact that Soderbergh has managed to accomplish in one film what policymakers on both sides of the Drug War fence have been trying to do for decades. He brings the war back home and lets us view its ravages from seemingly every angle at once. It's a thrilling, powerful movie, and one that certain people in certain quarters may have at one time called dangerous. Some of them may yet still.
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