A Cinematic Game-Changing Look at the Drug War: 'Traffic' Review

Updated on November 25, 2018
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie survival movies, but I love classics and various cult pieces too.

Steven Soderbergh entered the 21st century wanting to make a film about drugs. The interesting thing is that far from wanting to repeat the different patterns already established, the American director decided to shoot a realistic story about the problem of drug trafficking and addiction in the United States.

The challenge wasn't easy. A film about drugs without explosions, patriot heroes and Colombian moustachioed villains wasn't going to have the expected blockbuster entertainment. On the other side of the spectrum, a movie about drugs without beautiful young actors dancing techno or punk under the influence of heroin wasn't going to have the intense indie feeling that film festivals loved.

But Soderbergh didn't hesitate. Based remotely on an old British TV series called Traffik, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan wrote three stories geographically far apart, but all united by drugs. Gaghan would end up winning an Academy Award for this work.

In Tijuana, Mexico, a jaded but righteous police officer called Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro, who would win an Oscar for this character) tries to make a dent in the drug cartels. We do not know his background, but his sadness and resilience with which he takes amazing, death-threatening risks tell us a lot about his determination. He is confronted by the Mexican high-ranking officer General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who decides to hire him to eradicate the Tijuana cartel.

In Washington DC, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is assigned as the new drug czar, (that is, he is the new president of the Office of National Drug Control Policy). Wakefield starts the job listening again and again how his predecessors and new colleagues assure him that the War on Drugs is basically a lost cause. Wakefield decides to make several trips to the border to try to find inspiration and motivation for what looks like a hopeless mission. On a personal level, he also has to deal with the hardcore drug addiction of his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen).

The other subplot, set in San Diego, is a bit more complicated. Includes DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) seeking to get dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) to testify against drug lord Carl Ayala (Steven Bauer). The story also follows Ayala's wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) as she tries to maintain her husband's drug empire during the trial.

Soderbergh uses 147 minutes to tell all these stories and achieves it in a great way. All stories are connected through that spectrum of addiction. Here, we see the clandestine industry that seeks to produce, distribute and sell the drugs; the government and law enforcement efforts to stop that industry (as well as corrupt sectors within the state that seek to live in both worlds) and, of course, the small consumer dealing with the highs and lows of a drug-filled lifestyle.

To display all that heavy story-telling without confusing the audience, Soderbergh (who also did the cinematography under the name of Peter Andrews), decided to give each story a distinctive visual style.

For the scenes on the East Coast, that is, those of the Wakefield family and Washington DC, Soderbergh used tungsten light, giving it that cold, blue feel. For the Mexico sequence with Javier Rodriguez, he used full tobacco filters to achieve that warm and yellowish look (you know, the one that Breaking Bad would end up emulating). For the San Diego plot, the photography is a bit more traditional, with diffusion filters and more realistic colors.

Traffic makes a fairly realistic portrait of distribution, consumption and police efforts around the problem of addiction. Without ever becoming moralistic or accusatory, the plot is full of inescapable gray moral areas.

The legacy of Traffic is impressive. The eighties were full of absurd, blindsided stories with muscular macho heroes and cartoonish villain drug dealers. The nineties, full of existentialist and glamorizing teen addiction stories. The great Soderbergh film offered a more real and multi-level portrayal of the War on Drugs.

The ingenuity and easy demonization of the subject seemed to have been overcome in recent cultural products. And that, to a large extent, was thanks to Traffic.

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But perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is that even when the portrayed drug world is not sweetened at all--becoming really violent at times--Traffic decides to focus on hope.

From Rodriguez watching a children's night baseball game, through the Wakefield family gathered to start healing their wounds, to agent Gordon's new tactics to finally achieve his most desired arrest, practically all the main characters are left in a good "rebuilding" place.

All have suffered heavy setbacks and experienced horrible moments, but have had a small victory that motivates them to keep trying.

Like the War On Drugs itself.

Movie Details

Title: Traffic

Release Year: 2000

Director(s): Steven Soderbergh

Actors: Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, a.o.

4 stars for Traffic (2000)

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    • Sam Shepards profile imageAUTHOR

      Sam Shepards 

      3 months ago from Europe

      Thank you for your comment!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      I haven't watched the film, but you have given it a thoughtful review.

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