Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Traffic is an ambitious, engaging political drama. It’s as involving as The Insider and as intricate as Magnolia. There are moments when director Steven Soderbergh slips up, but on the whole, Traffic is a very good film.

Five Stories

Just Say No: Catherine Zeta-Jones in TrafficSoderbergh weaves together five different stories, all connected to the cocaine business between Mexico and the U.S.

Benicio Del Toro opens the film in Mexico. He plays Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a Tijuana cop. He’s got information about a cocaine deal south of town, out in the desert, and he and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) show up to make the bust. Javier doesn’t do it for justice, but as a lucrative career move. As someone later says, being a cop in Mexico is an entrepreneurial business.

At the other end of the supply chain is Caroline (Erika Christensen), 16 years old and born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She and her rich friends use freebase, pot, and alcohol as conversational stimulants. Getting high makes their prep-school lives a little more interesting.

A of DEA agents, Monty and Ray (Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzmán), are soldiers in the drug war, genuinely interested in fighting crime. They go undercover to catch a cocaine distributor (Miguel Ferrer). Once they catch him, they’ll be all too happy to give him immunity if they can trade him in for someone bigger, someone higher up the chain. As Ray tells Monty early on, “I have dreams about busting the top people; the rich people; the white people.” That’s one of screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s many right-on-target observations about the drug war.

A fourth story features Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her greed and sense of well-being kept her happily believing that her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) was a legitimate businessman. Carlos is in fact one of the biggest drug traffickers in the U.S., and now she faces seizure of all her property. With Carlos in jail and all her assets frozen, she has to decide what to do about it.

The Narrator

Finally, there is the story of Tom Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio judge who has been promoted to Drug Czar of the United States. His subplot is perhaps the least interesting because it seems to have been written purely as exposition for the audience. Representative scenes show Wakefield being briefed by his new boss, taking an informative tour of an El Paso facility, and meeting with local experts on drug smuggling. In fact, some of the exposition is so blatant that at one point, another character says in exasperation “are we on Larry King?”

Wakefield’s final speech is almost as contrived, overdramatic, and unbelievable as the one in The Contender. Douglas does his best to capture the spirit of the speech, which tries to summarize the entire movie. But Traffic is too complex to allow for such a tidy ending. In a sense, screenwriter Gaghan was a victim of his own success, presenting such a careful, meticulous political issue in so much detail that there’s no easy way to bring closure. A more resigned, open-ended finale would have felt more in line with the rest of the movie.

The War on Drugs

In spite of the dramatic flaws in Douglas’ character, the best thing about Traffic is its screenplay. Ironically, some of the more blatant exposition actually seemed to help the movie by giving it more depth and density than it otherwise would have had. The drug war is a tough, complex issue, and Traffic actually cuts to the heart of many aspects of it.

A couple of strong examples come to mind. One of Caroline’s friends gives a speech about race. He explains that white people invade black neighborhoods, waving money and looking for drugs. What sort of impact must that have on a community?.

Wakefield has been put in charge of a huge budget, and a big staff. He’s been schmoozed by the most powerful people in Washington. But when he talks to someone on the front line, one of the El Paso experts, he is told matter-of-factly that the U.S. budget doesn’t even come close to the profits of the cocaine trade. That simple fact is so much more startling when it’s put into Wakefield’s perspective.

Show Me Something

But the movie shows as well as tells. The talky parts are intercut with more dramatic scenes. The tension that’s set up between the different threads helps keep the movie exciting, and each thread gets just enough screen time before the next one takes over. The pace is perfect and before you know it, the film is 3/4 over.

At about the 3/4 mark I was getting tired of the parade of factoids. The film starts to end, and it stumbles a little because of its forward momentum. For example, the ending to Monty and Ray’s story was contrived and unbelievable, which was disappointing. And perhaps the weakest moment of the film is Wakefield’s speech at his first press conference, which also felt contrived. What a disappointment after such a gritty, dense drama.

Nevertheless, Traffic provides much food for thought. Long after the credits rolled I was ruminating and talking over the details of the past 2 ½ hours. Not many movies make me do that, which is largely why I recommend Traffic.