Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#666. Traffic (2000)

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Tag line: "No One Gets Away Clean"

Trivia:  Catherine Zeta-Jones was pregnant during filming, and the role was adjusted to suit her condition. Originally, her character was already a mother of two instead of six months pregnant

A motion picture that explores the “war on drugs” in amazing detail, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is understandably large in scope. In fact, the underlying message of the film is that the war itself may be too large, perhaps even too politically-minded to ever achieve total victory. Fought on a federal level, the battle against drugs has become a bureaucratic tug-of-war, with governmental positioning and budgetary concerns taking center stage. As this is going on in Washington D.C., the real fight rages in the streets, where casualties are dying by the thousands.

In Traffic, the world of illegal narcotics is turned inside-out, from the manner in which drugs are smuggled across borders right down to the courtrooms, where the law does its part to bring foreign cartels to their knees.  Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed the President's new Drug Czar, but how can he combat dope on the streets of America when he can’t even control his own daughter’s (Erika Christensen) addiction? 

DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) recently apprehended Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a key member of an organization that smuggles drugs into the U.S. From Mexico. In exchange for immunity, Ruiz has agreed to testify against Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), the head of his organization. Once Ayala is taken into custody, his wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), finds herself alone with the couple's young son, and forced to somehow pay the millions her husband owes his “associates”. 

On the Mexican side of the border, the battle has become a crusade for honest lawmen such as Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) who is often stifled by the corruption within his own ranks. Shortly after making a successful bust, Rodriguez and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), are themselves apprehended by the troops of Gen. Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), a man who claims to be their comrade in the fight. Salazar says he admires Rodriguez, and wants to help him bring down the country's powerful cartels, but all is not as it seems.

Along with its amazing performances (Del Toro won both an Oscar and BAFTA for his turn as Rodriguez, while the entire cast walked off with Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild), Soderburgh's unique approach to Traffic helped transform it into a wonderfully fascinating, incredibly emotional motion picture. In creating the movie's look, Soderbergh utilized a variety of film stocks, thus giving each segment its own unique atmosphere. The sequences in Mexico are faded and yellow, infusing them with a raw energy that illustrates how “down and dirty” the drug situation has become in that country. When Judge Wakefield first meets with General Salazar, he asks the General how Mexico is dealing with the treatment of addicts once they've been identified. Quite casually, Salazar replies, “They O.D., they die, and then there’s one less user to worry about”. Clearly, there are fights the war on drugs is losing, and others it is ignoring completely.

By the end of Traffic, we're left wondering if "war" is even the correct approach to the problem. With drug use hitting so close to home for so many people, the struggle against illegal narcotics is far from a battle for some. As Judge Wakefield asked at one point, how do you declare war on your own family?

Along with being an incredibly stylized motion picture, Traffic gives us plenty to think about.

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