Traffic begins in Mexico where a major drug bust is intercepted by a general who stands to profit from the success of the country's drug cartels. Photographed with a glaring yellow tint, Mexico looks as seedy as it always does in the movies.
The scene shifts to the USA where an Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) is appointed the country's new drug czar. He receives sympathy rather than encouragement from his predecessor, a man who is convinced that his successor's mission is as doomed to failure as his was. But the new czar is an idealistic sort, at least in his public statements. The trouble is, while he concentrates on the big picture, his eyes are blind to his own corner of the canvas. He makes the rounds of Washington cocktail parties, discussing his agenda with the government elite, but he's unaware that his daughter is free-basing cocaine in the family bathroom.
Meanwhile, in a posh California suburb, a wealthy society girl (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sees her life of ease turned upside down when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking. It's the first clue she's had that her husband is something other than a legitimate businessman.
For two and a half hours, Traffic paints a portrait of despair. There's weariness in the eyes of the Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) who finds himself caught between his corrupt superiors, and the agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency who want him to be an informer. The drug czar is a ghost in his own home, and needs, as his wife tells him, three drinks just to say hello to his family. The California material girl, desperate to hang onto her life of luxury, takes over her husband's business affairs, concerned only with maintaining her lavish lifestyle at any cost.
Ambitious in a way few films have been of late, Traffic has its heart in the right place but not its head. It doesn't offer solutions and shouldn't be expected to, but it doesn't provide any insight either. It shows us the problem and the consequences, but so do television news reports. Soderbergh's lack of the kind of passion Oliver Stone might have brought to the topic leaves his film just lying there. Furthermore, much of what we see has been a staple of every cop show since Kojak. In addition to the forced irony of a drug czar with an addicted daughter, there's the amusing repartee between two street-smart cops (Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman) assigned to a stakeout of the drug trafficker's home.
As troubling as it is to admit, Traffic is also a bit racist. It suggests the drug problem in our society is a problem only when it reaches the suburbs and infects the blue-eyed, blonde haired children of the upper middle class. When the czar's daughter sinks to prostitution, selling her body in flea bag hotels to support her habit, the customer we see her with is a black man. The filmmakers would deny it, of course, but this is meant as a double shock, a suggestion that she could sink no lower.
The performances are all good, and Soderbergh has assembled such a high profile cast that even the great Albert Finney pops up only briefly in a small role. The best moments belong to Cheadle and Guzman, who are smart and funny in a movie otherwise populated by characters that are sophisticated but dumb.
Named the best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, Traffic appears to be the front runner for the Oscar. That simply proves it's been a dismal year at the movies. Nancy Reagan's much ridiculed campaign advising young people to "just say no" to drugs may have been simplistic and perhaps naïve, but Traffic doesn't say much of anything. A film about a subject this serious should be compelling enough to stay with you for days. It should force the audience to ask themselves questions. By the time the credits rolled, the only question the film left me with was this one: what does Catherine Zeta-Jones see in Michael Douglas? By the time I got home, I was even asking myself what Douglas sees in her. That is not the mark of a masterwork.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks