DRUGS UNITE the disparate souls both north and south of the narco-divide in Steven Soderbergh's second big movie of 2000. The first, Erin Brockovich, concerns a buxom do-gooder who battles an evil, overwhelming foe to a more palatable conclusion. In this kindred adaptation of a 1989 British miniseries, Soderbergh isn't so sanguine as he briskly jumps like a channel surfer between three interrelated stories. Even if the front line's exact location is ambiguous, this sprawling, ambitious film does have its battlefield heroes.
directed by Steven Soderbergh with Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Don Cheadle opens January 5 at Pacific Place, Varsity, and other theaters
In the south, it's a jaded Tijuana street cop (Benicio Del Toro) who reveals himself as a man of conscience in a world of corruption. In the north, his counterpart is an upright but naive Ohio judge (Michael Douglas), who's about to be appointed federal drug czar. Neither figure knows what he's in for, tackling the narcotics trade; both inevitably suffer personal casualties as a result.
How can they stop the traffic? On a fact-finding trip, the judge says, "The dam is open for new ideas," then waits for some. His planeful of advisors remains conspicuously silent, unable to offer any. It's a telling, comical moment, when Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan signal the enormity and intractability of the predicament; later, shopping carts are used to wheel away drugs seized at the border.
Solutions aren't forthcoming from anyone. In Traffic's funniest, most audacious scene, a cocktail party of real-life DC politicians appraises the judge's Sisyphean task. "Addicts don't vote," says one cynic. "You're never going to win this on the supply side," observes former Massachusetts governor William Weld. Traffic's a bad-message movie, shorn of any artificial uplift. Its ultimate victories are small; nevertheless, in relating them with such swift assurance, Soderbergh's achievement is enormous, making Traffic the best-directed picture of last year.
WAY DOWN SOUTH in dusty yellow Mexico, the army relieves Del Toro's cop of his arrestees and evidence. He doesn't want to cross either of the two rival drug cartels that control different factions of law enforcement. Still, when a general recruits him and his partner to help wipe out one gang, the lure is hard to resist.
Meanwhile, in posh La Jolla, a pampered housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) apparently lives in a different universe than two streetwise San Diego cops (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmᮩ busting a talkative drug broker (Miguel Ferrer). The latter sneers, "You realize the futility of what you're doing, but you do it anyway." Ouch, we think, but he's right about our insatiable national craving for recreational drugs.
In suburban Cincinnati, Soderbergh nonjudgmentally depicts teen prep school students gathering in a parental mansion to escape "surface bullshit" by chasing the dragon. They're in search of some kind of ill-understood authenticity they describe in educated yet rambling, spot-on stoner dialogue. Watery eyes, dilated pupils, and flushed young faces testify to the attraction of what's real, what's sincerely felt in their insulated world.
Acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh treats that cool, comfortable world with blue light and luminescent surfaces. By contrast, he renders Mexico with filters, saturated colors, and various camera tricks. The result is an intentionally jarring discontinuity, heightened by long passages—in an admittedly long movie—of subtitled Spanish dialogue. Traffic is an immersion course in something nasty, something foreign yet familiar. Zeta-Jones' pregnant housewife embodies this schism, being both protectively maternal and avariciously intent on maintaining her family's wealth. She's like Medea in a Benz SUV.
Using the high-speed, big-canvas approach, Soderbergh grants depth to only a few of his many characters; the multifaceted effect both complicates and humanizes a problem without easy answers. After so many years spent fighting the proverbial war on drugs, Traffic is the first great Vietnam movie of that unwinnable quagmire.