Traffic | Steven Soderbergh | USA | 2000 | 147 minutes
Jason Furhman’s program notes for tonight’s screening of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic traces its journey from a British television mini-series to Academy Award winning feature film.
Steven Soderbergh’s career reached a new high with this visually ambitious, hard-boiled panorama of the ongoing, disastrously ineffectual “War on Drugs”. Described by the director as “Nashville meets The French Connection,” Traffic traces the illegal drug trade from distribution to consumption through the lives of dozens of characters, from wealthy kingpins to world-weary students, from underpaid Tijuana street cops to idealistic Washington officials, from undercover DEA agents to ruthless assassins. Soderbergh delivers a fresh and lucid perspective on a multi-layered issue, while neither excessively editorializing nor foregoing entertainment. At once a gripping political thriller and a sprawling mosaic of human frailty and desire, Traffic lives right on the border between Hollywood and independent filmmaking.
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan based his script on a 1989 British television series named Traffik, which follows the movement of heroin from the poppy fields of Pakistan to the open veins of British addicts. For his adaptation, Gaghan transplanted the story to North America, focusing on the flow of hard drugs from Mexico to the United States. Traffic concisely introduces us to an array of men and women involved in the illegal drug industry at multiple levels. These characters form an intricate network of supply and demand in which no one remains unscathed. Omitting as much exposition as possible while remaining coherent, the film tells three parallel narratives, which sometimes connect but usually do not. Each new scene contributes its own information to the larger puzzle. Traffic unfolds fast, and faster still as the story shifts rapidly from Tijuana to Washington, D.C., to San Diego, then back again to Mexico.
Traffic opens in the Mexican desert not far from California. Two plainclothes policemen, played by Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas, intercept a truck filled with cocaine, but the drugs are seized by a powerful, shadowy army general (Tomas Milian). Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield has just been appointed the nation’s newest drug czar, a position that he embraces with the naiveté of someone who has no idea what the job actually means. In San Diego, two undercover federal agents, Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) and Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) successfully bust an articulate, cynical mid-level trafficker, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), on their way to catching Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a drug lord who is ostensibly a respectable millionaire.
Unbeknown to Wakefield, his sullen 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christianson), an honors student who attends a private school in a Cincinnati suburb, has graduated from recreational snorting with her amoral boyfriend (Topher Grace) to habitual freebasing. Back West, after an upscale lunch with friends at the local country club, pregnant socialite Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers that her affluent lifestyle is not what it seems when her husband is arrested and the family’s assets are frozen. Almost immediately, she is caught between her husband’s associates, who are demanding money she doesn’t have to give, and the DEA, which demands cooperation she doesn’t want to surrender.
With 110 principal roles and a relatively compressed 54-day shooting schedule, Traffic presented Soderbergh with his most complex logistical challenge to date. “In the production meetings, I’d say, ‘Look, what’s most important is energy and emotion. Just be on your toes and be ready.’” To sustain momentum, the director shot the movie himself—a highly unusual choice for a production of its size and scale. Using a handheld camera and filming with available light where possible, Soderbergh sought to cultivate an atmosphere of raw immediacy on set. “For this film, I spent a lot of time analyzing [Gillo Pontecorvo’s] Battle of Algiers and [Costa-Gavras’] Z—both of which have that great feeling of things that are caught, instead of staged, which is what we were after. I just wanted that sensation of chasing the story, this sense that it may outrun us if we don’t move quickly enough.” His intimate, restless camerawork infuses Traffic with a documentary feel that rivets attention and brings the script to life.
Employing a range of techniques, Soderbergh adopts stylized color coordination to steer viewers through his astutely interlaced stories. The burnt ochre Mexico segments were shot through filters and with a 45-degree shutter to create “a stroboscopic feeling,” then digitally re-saturated. For Wakefield’s Ohio courtroom and Washington, D.C. sequences, he devised a vividly opposing icy blue, clinical scheme. In the San Diego scenes bursting with lush, vibrant hues, Soderbergh used a process known as flashing: overexposing the film to white light before the negative is developed (“to create an idyllic look that . . . would contrast nicely with the slimy undercurrent”). This innovative approach is a bold aesthetic maneuver with a practical advantage: the colors instantaneously signify where you are and with whom.
Soderbergh contemplates the role drugs play in an individual’s life and the cultural reasons for how they are viewed, while raising difficult questions about self-medication, pleasure, dependence and addiction. The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn’t preach. Traffic is epic entertainment with a social conscience and Soderbergh, who worked closely with Gaghan in adapting it, says impartiality was vital.
I didn’t want to come off like we had answers. . . . But there seems to be a huge vacuum in the public debate and I guess this is one of the few times I felt a movie could actually help. The funny thing is, everybody who sees it thinks it puts their point of view across, and I was expecting exactly the opposite. We had a screening in Washington for Customs, DEA, and the Department of Justice and they all came out saying they really liked it. The following night, there was some hardcore leftie NPR/PBS screening in L.A. and some guy stands up and goes, ‘Thank you for making the first pro-legalization movie.’ Then the other night, [New York City Police] Commissioner [Howard] Safir came to a screening and said he thought it was the most accurate representation of law enforcement he’d seen in a long time. And I have, you know, stoner friends who are going, like, ‘Dude, yeah, great . . .’”
Traffic presents a brutally honest, unflinching vision of a futile war being fought and lost. The film sets out the justifications for fighting the war, even as it also methodically exposes its hypocrisies and tragic dead-ends. Nevertheless, Traffic does not succumb to either despair or cynicism, and a humanistic undercurrent runs throughout it. The nuanced performances of an exceptional ensemble cast lend a vibrant personal dimension to the film, while evoking life at different social strata in various locations. Avoiding any affectation of being “Important,” Traffic dispassionately and scrupulously conveys the sense that out there somewhere is an entrenched system that is ruining people’s lives across the board.
Although every major studio in Hollywood turned it down, Traffic went on to obtain some of the American film industry’s highest honors, including four Academy Awards, for best director, best adapted screenplay, best editing, and best supporting actor (for Benicio Del Toro). Soderbergh has said that he doesn’t think Traffic could have been made by a studio, and perhaps he is correct. “It’s an independent film,” he insisted, days before it opened. To look at the movie then as now, to consider its dark, foreboding subject and its refusal to offer easy explanations, is to understand that it is a radical gesture disguised as an accessible thriller. With its rhythmic, kinetic energy, complex architecture, elliptical editing, and gritty realism, Traffic is a technically audacious and emotionally compelling masterpiece.