Rated R - Running Time: 2:27 - Released 12/27/00

Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, his second highly acclaimed and award-nominated film this year (after Erin Brockovich), is a multi-layered look into the ever-present, ever-explosive subject of the Mexican/American drug trade. Its text, by former drug addict Stephen Gaghan (based on the 1989 British TV miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore), is made up of three separate threads expertly woven together to form a strong, compelling fiber. Not content to merely view the drug issue from a moralistic point of view, Soderbergh's film sees the issue from every side, pondering its inescapable truths and its exasperating politics, making a powerful statement about who exactly is the enemy in the so-called "war on drugs."

This multi-faceted viewpoint is emphasized by Soderbergh's use of varying film stocks and color filters, desaturation and oversaturation, multiple filming locations and different languages, and an immense cast of over 100 speaking parts. The film is epic in its way; however, its presentation is somewhat dry, business-like...while it bears some emotional content and some action-oriented material, and offers a few fascinating peeks into a world many of us remain happily unaware of, its general feel is more like a news story than a work of fiction. It may very well be that this is purely intentional.

In the first of three stories whose intersection is sometimes only visible on the large scale, we meet Mexican narcotics cops Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), whose investigation of a Tijuana drug cartel leads them to uncover the corruption of a dangerous general (Tomas Milian), and Manolo's own transgression gets them in even deeper trouble. Secondly, a well-placed Latino American smuggler (Steven Bauer) is dragged from his home in front of his horrified wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and child. His trial hinges on the testimony of a middleman (Miguel Ferrer) who must live under constant supervision of two DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán) lest he be murdered before the trial. Finally, respected Cincinatti judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is appointed as the drug czar by the president, only to discover that his daughter (Erika Christensen) is addicted to crack. A straight-A student looking for meaning in her wealthy, pampered life, she learns the fine art of freebasing from one of her preppy friends (Topher Grace of TV's That '70s Show) and eventually moves on to heroin, forcing her father into a crisis of conscience and a re-examination of his principles.

All of these stories emphasize writer Gaghan's point that drugs are much more pervasive than anyone realizes, that, as he puts it, "the enemy is every one of us." While the film's protagonists attempt to stand above the issue and make war on the evils of drugs, it becomes a startling reality to each of them that in so doing they are making war on their partners, neighbors, loved ones, family members. Each is forced, in a sense, to compromise his or her beliefs and succumb to the neccessity of choosing between high-minded rhetoric and the realities of the complex world we live in.

Soderbergh's visual treatment of this story is compelling; the film's globe- (or at least America-) trotting style conveys the scale and scope of the subject matter. He does not overly concern himself with character development, though, and this is what gives the film its rather sterile feel. All the principal actors are convincing, of course, especially Christensen as the teen who has everything and yet feels the need to escape. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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