Lawrence Russell

Traffic (2000) dir. Steven Soderbergh writ. Stephen Gaghan (based on the U.K. Ch. 4 series Traffik) cine. X star. Michael Douglas (Judge Robert Wakefield), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayolia), Benicio del Toro (Javier), Jacob Vargas (Manolo), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Luis Guzman (Ray Castro), Tomas Milian (General Salazar), Denis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Clifton Collins Jr. (Frankie Flowers), Miguel Ferrer (Ruiz), Topher Grace (Seth Abrahams)

USA Films

Now that the hippies have control of America, things are much clearer. Marijuana is medicinal and therapeutic, tobacco is addictive and terminal. Heroin? We know it kills pain, so "just do like they do in Europe" and register the users at the local pharmacy. Cocaine? Good for sex isn't it, and anything that's good for sex is o.k. Just legalize it, make it a public health issue. Ecstasy? That's like acid, isn't it... what about amyl nitrate and the spread of AIDS. Dunno. Has anyone done a study? Etc.

The drug debate has always been one about freedom of religion, freedom of the market, freedom itself. "Fuck you," snarls Judge Wakefield's stoned 16 year old daughter when he confronts her with her drug gear. "You sound like a fascist." The irony here is a heavy one, as the Judge has just been appointed by the President to head up the Nation's anti-drug campaign. When he confers with his wife that evening, she wearily admits that they've lost control of their daughter. What are they supposed to do, say? "When I was in college, I did every drug there was," she says. No doubt. No doubt she read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception too. Tim Leary? He was so cool. "Tune in and drop out...." Thus the religion of drugs provided a new moral imperative in a country eroded by the false imperialism of Vietnam and the persistence of racial inequality.

Michael Douglas: Traffic

There's considerable irony in today's social predicament over drugs. One generation's revolution becomes the next generation's burden. Soderbergh's Traffic is a dramatized documentary on how things stand: the only thing missing is a narrator, so it passes as fiction. The documentary form is seen not only in the style but also in the broad approach to the subject. The protagonist is cocaine and the characters merely examples of the business. There are three victims, and all are women. The first two are American, and their stories predominate, and develop ironically.

Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen) is the Judge's sixteen year old daughter, a Robert Crumb nubile with lots of idle time despite the fact that she's an A student and a charity volunteer. You see her smoking pot while channel surfing the TV and engaging in stoned, cynical conversations about life. She retires to a closet room with a casual boyfriend from the Academy, who introduces her not only to the forbidden delight of freebasing cocaine but also the ecstatic combo of coke and sex. How long before this upper-middle class girl is a sex slave prostituting herself on skid row?

Not long -- weeks, not months. It's here that Soderbergh-Gaghan push the big buttons on the liberal lassitude of white America. She escapes from the de-tox clinic and screws her black dealer for some free coke. You are not spared the sight of a large sweating Mandingo giving it to a white teenager in a dirty tenement room. Later her father recovers her from the embrace of a sixty year old white cadaver in a dump hotel. The imagery is loaded, the degradation irrefutable, the morality a matter of perception. But you know it won't be long before a speedball or a sexual predator leaves her dead in the gutter or at the doorway of the nearest Emergency clinic.

Helena Ayolia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is the pregnant society wife of a leading San Diego business man who gets arrested in a surprise bust by the DEA. She has no idea that her husband is in the drug trade, apparently... so she becomes a character of considerable sympathy as she struggles to understand what's going on and make ends meet when their credit cards are maxed and bank accounts empty. Worst of all, the infamous Obregon brothers of the Tijuana cartel send a nasty man to threaten her over a drug debt incurred by her husband. While she's passing some time on the beach, the man scoops her young daughter from the sand, delivers his ugly threat: pay or maybe the kid will disappear.

Thus the thematic refrain is repeated: the drug pandemic is an attack on our children.

Helena is under survellience continuously and she knows it. But instead of folding under the pressure, she craftily uses the survellience detail as a shield as she carries out some ruthless countermeasures. To our surprise, Helena is no simple victim. Following whispered instructions from her incarcerated husband, she uses money from some secret offshore bank accounts to a) hire a company hitman, the chicano psychopath Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr), to take care of the witness who is to testify against her husband, and b) pay the Obregon brothers a quick business visit in Tijuana. While Flowers fails to deliver (through no fault of his) and the Ayolias are forced to use a less showy form of execution (poison) to get rid of the witness, the meeting in Tijuana is still a brilliant success. You will not want to miss the Zeta-Jones coke doll scene.

The third victim is the wife of the Tijuana cop Manolito. While her role is peripheral to the story of her husband and his partner Javier (Benicio del Toro), she is nevertheless its cruel legacy . It's nice to see some Latino characters who are neither corrupt nor stupid, although there are some corrupt Latinos in this scenario.

Javier and Manolito intercept a drug shipment in the desert bound for export ... but in turn are intercepted by some Federales in a cortege of ominous black Suburban vans. Their leader is a General in the Mexican army... and you have to be asleep not to recognize right away that he's probably corrupt and dangerous, even though his professed aim is to take out the Tijuana cartel. He recruits the two cops into his "anti-smuggling" squad, sends Javier across the border to kidnap the Obregon assassin Frankie Flowers. When Flowers is brought before the General, he's immediately tortured in a gutted hacienda. It's like watching solarized cancer cells through a microscope. Again you are not spared the ugly ritual... and the mutilated, babbling Flowers soon provides the names and addresses of the people General Salazar has marked for neutralization.

Javier is disturbed by all this but stays cool. His partner is less cool, makes the mistake of trying to sell some information north of the border. The General finds out, and his goons take the two cops out to the desert, make them dig their own graves. Only Manolo is executed, however, and Javier is left to explain to his widow just how he died. In the line of duty, of course... the altruistic Javier protects his partner's reputation and with cajones of steel goes about the business of bringing down El Generale.

Soderbergh makes a nifty move when he renders all the Mexican footage as a 16 mm blowup, as if it's been photographed clandestinely. Also, it acts as clear demarcation between the third world reality of the supplier with the first world reality of the consumer. Still, you might find this annoying after a while. While it works as a metaphor, perhaps it fails as expanded cinema.

A lot of characters, a lot of situations, and the convergence is slow in coming. Too slow, some might say... and maybe it never comes, despite the occasional overhead shot of the traffic swarm at the US-Mexico border. Traffic certainly lacks the visceral theatricality of, say, the drug classic Scarface although they share some characteristics. Traffic also shares something with The French Connection, especially those sequences featuring boring survellience chores. However, the indolent movement of the action -- which follows four different stories -- allows you to think about what you're seeing and to absorb the lesson clearly.

The suggested racial divide between the dealer and the user is bound to be contentious. If you believe what you see, then Hispanics are the manufacturers, blacks the dealers, whites the users. As Seth -- the insolent young corruptor of Caroline -- tells her father the Judge, every day there are a hundred thousand whiteys cruising the black neighborhoods of America looking for dope... and at $200 an hour, what black man is going to give a damn about going to law school?

A nice solid half-truth? Soderbergh goes out of his way to go easy on the propaganda, although some might think this movie is all propaganda. Judge Wakefield and his associates are frequently seen with drinks in hand as they discuss the drug situation, ergo, drugs are bad but not the drugs they use. The hypocrisy of the establishment's position is continuously reinforced. The thesis: the drug war is hopeless, a 19 billion dollar slush fund for bureaucrats and cops, and nothing more than a corruption itself.

In this chemosynthetic reality we now call life, American fundamentalism is always there to rescue the fallen. You can join a group, testify, become born again.

Traffic: a smooth exercise in film journalism, likely to stimulate debate, but unlikely to be remembered except as part of the Michael Douglas filmography.

© LR 1/2001


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Film Court | copyright 2001 | Lawrence Russell