2000; Rated R; 147 Minutes
Michael Douglas: Robert Wakefield
Don Cheadle: Montel Gordon
Benicio Del Toro: Javier Rodriguez
Luis Guzmán: Ray Castro
Dennis Quaid: Arnie Metzger
Catherine Zeta-Jones: Helena Ayala
Produced by Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz,
Cameron Jones, Graham King, Andreas Klein, Mike Newell,
Richard Solomon, Edward Zwick; Directed by Steven
Soderbergh; Screenwritten by Stephen Gaghan
by DAVID KEYES
a challenge it would be to imagine a day in the life of
director Steven Soderbergh. Here is perhaps the most highly
recognized (and praised) filmmaker of 2000, a man who had
not one but two critical triumphs to his name during the
year, and is now being looked at as a double front-runner
at this year's upcoming heated Oscar race. How does he handle
the pressure? Where does he find the time and energy to
successfully pull off two big hits in just a space of nine
months? And last, but certainly not least, where does he
inherit that incredible sense of style?
who has seen either of his two recent hits—the fact-based
character study "Erin Brockovich," or the frontal attack
on the drug war known as "Traffic"—could probably describe
his approach in just a few simple words. But it takes more
than just plain vocabulary in order to completely understand
the technique and conviction of the texture within his pictures.
Soderbergh, in ways, is a lot like Michael Mann behind the
camera, shooting at his scenarios and characters without
a tripod anchoring the movement, swiftly editing the action,
and using coarse, earthy shades of color as the primary
source of light for each event. A description like this
undoubtedly sounds rather desolate, but watching the foreground
of any one of his films unfold is anything but.
that in mind with "Traffic," undoubtedly the most critically
successful picture of the year 2000. Gritty, tense, distinctive
and realistic, the movie is one of the most technically
well-crafted of its time. It's also a highly absorbing dramatic
piece as well, one that painstakingly stipulates the events
of an endless drug war between the U.S. and Mexico, and
combines it with an energetic ensemble cast practically
large enough to build the Astrodome. But where Soderbergh's
direction triumphs, Stephen Gaghan's screenplay sometimes
fails, ultimately undermining the product so that it comes
nowhere to meeting the standards of a true cinema classic.
The narrative problems are not too significant to actually
distract us during the movie itself, but they do leave somewhat
of an aftertaste after it's all over.
importance of the story lies not in the fact that it creates
a distinct picture of the drug war itself, but in the notion
that even comprehensive plans and personal ambitions against
these substances does not always spell victory. There is
a moment in the film in which young actress Erika Christensen
announces that people her age actually have easier access
to drugs than alcohol. Is that the truth? Of course it is.
And that's the problem for Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas),
a supreme court justice from Ohio who has just become the
U.S. Drug Czar, the highest office in the nation's onslaught
on the complex narcotic production and distribution between
the states and Mexico. How can Robert competently fight
this endless, catastrophic war against illegal substances
when it has made a casualty of his own daughter? Drugs are
like diseases; they strike without warning, consuming whom
we least expect even though we fight tooth and nail to shield
ourselves from their wrath. No one is truly safe from them.
movie is conveyed from three different angles, each with
its own powerful premise. The strongest of them takes place
south of the border, where Mexican law officer Javier Rodriguez
(Benicio del Toro, one of this year's surefire Oscar contenders)
reluctantly surrenders himself over to a notorious drug
official in order to increase his weekly $300 paycheck.
Then there's Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant
wife of a southern California drug lord, who assumes the
duties of her husband's business in order to maintain her
wealthy status after he is picked up by two DEA agents played
by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán. The round-out of these three
interlocked stories, of course, involves the vengeful Robert
(Douglas), his disconnected wife (Amy Irving), and the drug-addicted
daughter (Christensen), who snorts without worry and rants
at AA meetings about how angry she is, although she isn't
sure why she feels that way. The sprawling dramatic tension
of the film is practically thick enough to cut with a butter
focus on each tale is as solid as possible, giving us equally-weighed
stories to use at our disposal. But this, in an indirect
way, may be part of the problem with "Traffic." Even though
the three stories are somewhat overlapping, none of them
ever create a central focus to elevate on. This is rather
frustrating on the emotional level, because the precise
connection between the viewers and the substance is rather
foggy. Whereas one person might be completely absorbed by
the father/daughter plot, another might be more tuned in
to the Rodriguez story. The movie feels fragmented, unable
to convey the same experience to every audience member.
with this error in judgment, though, "Traffic" is really
worth the ticket price, if only to see the swift craftsmanship
of Steven Soderbergh's direction. One of the most effective
parts of the movie's visuals is the distinction between
settings; the director photographs each with completely
different tones, establishing an essence of familiarity
in landscapes without having to tell us when we change locales
or where they actually change to. And like "Erin Brockovich,"
his handheld filming antics give the movie a marvelous documentary
atmosphere, pulling us into the material even when some
are not really emotionally connected to the events.
is "Traffic" really the Academy Award front-runner everyone
assumes it is? Absolutely not. But that certainly won't
prevent us, or the Academy for that matter, from responding
very positively to its conviction of the subject matter.
Movies like these are like rare diamonds; we are grateful
to have them, even with the flaws.
2001, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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