‘Traffic’ – Steven Soderbergh tracks the drug trade on Netflix

Steven Soderbergh tackles the drug trade with startling clarity in Traffic (2000), taking viewers from Tijuana to Washington with side trips to Middle America.

Michael Douglas stars as Robert Wakefield, a state Supreme Court judge newly appointed as the nation’s new drug Czar. While he plays political games in Washington, he’s becomes completely disconnected from his family and oblivious to his daughter’s thrill-seeking dive into hard drugs. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman play San Diego-based DEA agents who trace the cocaine trail back from the street to smuggler Carlos Ayaya (Steven Bauer) and Catherine Zeta-Jones is Carlos’ oblivious wife Helena, who struggles to come to grips with his hidden business interests. Across the border, Benicio Del Toro plays Rodriguez, a Tijuana cop in a culture where “law enforcement is an entrepreneurial occupation.”

A sense of instability and corruption pervades the world of Traffic like a dry rot. In Mexico it’s business as usual, but on the North side of the border the war on drugs faces a much more insidious enemy: the laws of supply and demand and a culture of hypocrisy.

Soderbergh quilts the complex checkerboard screenplay, adapted by Stephen Gaghan from a British miniseries, into a unified piece. The drug trade is not a neat, easy chain of cause and effect but cold, hard commerce that reverberates through every sector of society. The pieces fit together by inference and suggestion and Soderbergh applies a striking cinematic design, color coding the environments to match the dramatic temperature.

Soderbergh and Gaghan stake out a position not so much cynical as fatalist—never has the war on drugs been treated with such clarity, or such futility—but find a hope and a heart in Rodriguez. Ambiguous to the final scene, Rodriguez plays the opportunist, hiding his passion and disgust with a mask of indifference, and Del Toro delivers one of the best performances of his career.

For such a volatile drama, Soderbergh remains curiously cool even as his handheld camera brings an immediacy to the film. It’s a risky approach, holding the audience at arm’s length while the camera dissects the drama like a scalpel, but it also saves the film from veering into cliché. Wakefield hunts for his coke-addled runaway daughter (Erika Christensen) like a simmering vigilante and a pregnant Helena transforms from garden party socialite to ferocious lioness to take over the family drug smuggling business almost overnight. These scenes could have fallen into arch melodrama but the sharp performances of Douglas and especially Zeta-Jones pare motivations to raw survivalism and Soderberg’s detail-rich direction fills the scenes with shades of irony and tragedy.

Traffic is directed with an acute but cold intelligence that favors the complexity and sweep of the big picture over the interior lives of the individual players. Soderbergh never let his anger overflow into the film, but his emotional restraint makes this critical portrait of a doomed struggle even more cutting.

It won Academy Awards for director Soderbergh, the screenplay adaptation by Stephen Gaghan, supporting actor Benicio Del Toro, and film editing, and was nominated for best picture (it lost to Gladiator). Del Toro and Gaghan also won BAFTAs and Soderbergh and Del Toro were honored by the National Society of Film Critics, just a few of the many accolades the film earned.

Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Tomas Milian, and Albert Finney costar.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Traffic [Blu-ray]
Traffic (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Traffic [DVD]
Traffic (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Universal Home Video Blu-ray and DVD release include the 18-minute documentary featurette “Inside Traffic.”

The lavish Criterion Collection special edition includes three separate commentary tracks: a sharp and articulate track by director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan; one by producers Laura Bickford, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien; and one with composer Cliff Martinez (with two music cues not included in the film). There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan, 30 minutes of additional footage from the scenes of the El Paso Intelligence Center and the Washington D.C. cocktail party, and demonstrations of the three key production elements. There is a step by step look into the film processing technique used to achieve the sun-blasted look of the Mexican scenes; a demonstration of the editing choices and process of three scenes narrated by editor Stephen Mirrione (watching each scene become subtly sharpened and focused through each successive cut is a real education in the art of editing); and an instructional look at the art and technique of sound editing, hosted by sound editor Larry Blake. Also includes an accompanying booklet.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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