Traffic

TrafficFrom his beginning grainy shot in the sunny, yellow tinted Mexico desert to the blue-tinted urban teenage drug party at their parent’s stately manors, director Steven Soderbergh paints a realistic, encompassing picture of the primary elements of illegal drugs in our society.

Based on the 1989 British television miniseries, Traffic combines artful filmmaking with a prominent, eclectic cast to tell the realistic plights of the “war on drugs” in the United States and Mexico.

Michael Douglas stars as a recently appointed judge, Robert Wakefield, who must contend with a drug situation on the national level and within his family, namely his bright, but troubled daughter Caroline, well played by young TV veteran Erika Christensen.  “I’m angry about a lot of stuff, I just don’t know what,” Caroline tells her private school friends.

Robert experiences both ends of the drug spectrum as he discusses pertinent issues with politicians in Washington (many politicians have cameos in these sequences) from working with his Mexican counterparts on the Mexican border.  Notice how the cinematography around Robert changes as the plot progresses from a superficial element that he easily dismisses into a complete personal tour of the world of drugs.  His personal journey allows the film to progress and intertwine with various characters and themes.

Benicio Del Toro has a great performance (spoken mostly in Spanish) as an intelligent police officer named Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez who must assess dynamically dangerous situations with the Mexican drug cartel and the drug enforcement task force headed by General Salazar, played by Tomas Milian (Fools Rush In, The Yards).  Jacob Vargas (Yayo in 1995’s Get Shorty) plays Javier’s partner, Manolo Sanchez.  Marisol Padilla Sanchez’s portrayal of Manolo’s lanky wife helps boost the realism of the plot and shows how the war on drug affects the most unlikely person.

Soderbergh taps into his film alumni and recruits talented actors Don Cheadle and Lius Guzman to play DEA agents Montel Gordon and Ray Castro tracking drug activity near San Diego, California.  They have daily contact with drug dealers that tell them “Your whole life is pointless!  You realize the futility of what you’re doing and you do it anyway!” but still keep their sense of justice and responsibility.  Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the wife of a prominent businessman who suddenly finds herself in an awkward situation due to unlawful activity within her family.

The remaining supporting roles include such talented actors as Albert Finney (Network), Dennis Quaid (Frequency), Steven Bauer (Primal Fear), Clifton Colling Jr. (187), Amy Irving (Micki + Maude), Miguel Ferrer (The Stand), Benjamin Bratt (TV’s Law and Order), and Topher Grace (TV’s That 70s Show).  Salma Hayek also has an uncredited, but prominent role.

Intentional sound editing overlaps, camera color tints, and close tracking shots bring the characters’ actions closer to the audience as they watch the intertwining drama unfold from the third person point of view.  Notice how the media enters the film and how the elements of sound are utilized to entice the audience instead of boring them with predictable scenes seen countless times before.  The musical score by Cliff Martinez reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat because of its similar pulsating, artistic beats.  Martinez also provided the score for Soderbergh’s past films, The Limey and Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

Soderbergh’s tendency to build on his existing talents and previous casting choices has continued to elevate his work as a director.  Soderbergh literally puts the movie in his own hands by acting as his own cinematographer by holding the camera for much of the film.  His slowly turning view of a landing helicopter demonstrates one of the most technically challenging camera shots in recent film.

Look closely for hints at a surprising turn of events in the second half of the film involving drug transportation and notice how subtle shots seamlessly place characters together in the same setting, both unpredictable and unlikely under normal circumstances.  Soderbergh chooses not to filter out elements of realism (e.g. computer screens realistically flicker when seen through the camera) and entertains with a friendly poolside chat scene and some choice banter between Montel and Ray.

I’m not sure if the scene involving Robert’s slow deliberate deactivation of his car alarm was a joke or a quick point about the risks that Robert takes in his job because of his prominent position.  The very realistic performances boost this film beyond the epic modern drama (Don Cheadle’s exiting shove looked so real, maybe it was unscripted).  This 2 hour and 20 minute Oscar winner comes highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and is rated R for obvious drug content, some language, sexuality, and violence.

Copyright © Michael Siebenaler

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