movie film review | chris tookey
 
     
     
 

Traffic

 (18)
2000 - Gramercy Pictures - all rights reserved
     
  Traffic Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
 
Average Rating
9.00 /10
 
Starring
Robert Wakefield: Michael Douglas, Javier Rodriguez: Benicio Del Toro , Montel Gordon: Don Cheadle
Full Cast >
 

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Stephen Gaghan , based on the mini-series Traffik by Simon Moore

 
 
 
Released: 2000
   
Genre: DRAMA
THRILLER
   
Origin: US
   
Colour: C
   
Length: 147
 
 


 
Drugs. They're everywhere. After Requiem for a Dream, a wonderfully talented exploration of the harm that drugs can do, Traffik examines the issue of what ought to be done about them. It asks the equally tricky question: what can be done?
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Many of us would see part of the challenge as punishing drug-pushers and cutting off the supply from countries who produce the contaminants. That's certainly the view at first of the American judge (Michael Douglas) who's about to become the President's new drugs Czar. A good many of his early scenes are improvised, with Douglas interrogating real-life experts, and they're fascinating in a documentary way.

But, as we learn from other plot-strands, cutting off the supply is not easy. A well-meaning Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself rendered impotent in his battle against drug-running, because of greed and corruption higher up the law-enforcement ladder.

A hard-working American federal agent (Don Cheadle) is unable to get a known drugs baron (Steven Bauer) convicted, because the only witness who can testify against him (Miguel Ferrer) is murdered.

Both officers are battling against people with no principles and unlimited funds - a lethal combination.

To prove the power of drug money, we see a respectable, middle-class mother (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who's unwittingly been married to a drug baron turn herself into a drugs baroness, in order to safeguard her way of life. This is presented, if not sympathetically, at least in such a way as to make us understand why she does it. She has everything to lose if she allows her husband be found guilty, and only her soul to lose if she doesn't.

The various plot strands are interwoven very cleverly. All are well acted, and Del Toro is especially attractive in the way he tries to find a moral solution in a series of impossible situations. Director Steven Soderbergh sees beyond Miss Zeta Jones's luscious good looks to the steely determination beneath, and draws out her best performance yet.

My main reservation about Soderbergh's treatment is his apparent defeatism. The federal authorities are implausibly lax in their protection of so important a witness, parking their car where it can easily be tampered with, and allowing unknown persons to enter their hotel room. And Miss Zeta Jones's moral dilemma is portrayed so sketchily that she seems scarcely to countenance the more legal and honourable ways out of her predicament.

Michael Douglas's character is the pivotal one, mainly because is a moral character who has to deal with drugs in a very personal way. Unknown to him, his 16 year-old daughter (Erika Christensen) is developing an addiction to crack. By waging war on drugs, the judge suddenly becomes aware that he has to attack his own daughter, and a generation of young Americans who effectively finance the drugs trade. Whereupon, rather than throw the legal book at her, Douglas's character goes the more liberal route of trying to find out where his family went wrong, via therapy.

This, for me, was the weakest aspect of the film. The time strictures of a Hollywood movie, coupled with the number of other plots, mean that we don't really know what it is that has led the daughter into drugs, beyond peer pressure.

There are hints that the judge works too hard, that he is bored by his wife (Amy Irving), that she's too soft on her daughter because of her own experimentation with drugs at college, and that the family doesn't communicate well emotionally. But no one can really pretend that the problem of drugs in society is going to be solved by family therapy sessions. (I'm not convinced that the film-makers think it can either, incidentally, but it's the only solution that they propose.)

Just as noticeable is the film's failure to analyse why the judge's daughter and her friends feel they need drugs. It's presented merely as their generation's equivalent to their parent's alcohol and nicotine addictions. This is a familiar argument from the pro-legalisation of drugs lobby, but it begs more questions than it answers.

For what it's worth, I think there are differences - beyond the issue of social respectability - between a couple sharing a bottle of wine in an evening, and the same couple inhaling or injecting crack cocaine. The precise difference is one that requires unemotional analysis. It's an issue that Traffic avoids tackling.

Traffic tells so many stories that it can hardly avoid being less emotionally involving than most Hollywood films, which concentrate on one or two. While it tries to avoid preaching, Traffic has a point to make, and character development comes second. The actors who thrive are the ones who can create a rounded character with minimal dialogue; and there's a delicious cameo from Dennis Quaid, as a reptilian lawyer, who expresses more in one wordless shot sitting next to Miss Zeta Jones than most actors could with several pages of dialogue.

Even with director Steven Soderbergh's helpful colour-coding - when the colours are predominantly orange, we're in Mexico; if they're blue, we're with Douglas's family in America - the story is a demanding one for audiences to follow.

The original inspiration for this film was Traffik, a Channel 4 mini-series made a decade previously and written by Simon Moore. That series dealt with heroin rather than cocaine, and the trail from Pakistan to Europe rather than from Mexico to the USA, but the new film has the same scope and a similar, sceptical attitude towards attempts to tackle the problem.

If ever there was a topic that called out for mini-series treatment, this is it. Most movies are too long: Traffic suffers from the opposite problem - Stephen Gaghan's screenplay has been researched in such detail and tries to pack in so many stories to illuminate all aspects of the drugs supply chain, it needed to be longer, to do them all justice.


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