Monday, January 29, 2001

Traffic / *** (2000)

What 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?

Anyone 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.

Keep 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.

The 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.

The 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 knife.

Soderbergh's 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.

Even 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.

But 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.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Crime (US); 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

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