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TRAFFIC
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Luiz Guzman, Miguel Ferrer, Erika Christensen, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid
Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1, DTS Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  147 Minutes
Release Date:  January 17, 2012

“Now you see.”

Film ****

I saw Traffic on its first day in theatres when it came out.  And I didn’t like it.

While critics were more than generous with their praise of Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious effort, I was dumbfounded by how emotionally cold it left me.  Here was a picture about the war on drugs and its victims, and how those victims cross all kinds of borders both real and illusionary…and it never involved me at a gut level.  What was the point, I asked many who liked the film out loud?  That the war on drugs was going badly?  I know that; I read the papers.  That corruption in legal systems and ineffectual politics have made it a war almost impossible to even fight, let alone win?  Again, no new news here.  That with every success and every failure there are casualties?  It’s all real, and all terrible…yet I believed Soderbergh depicted it all with a curious lack of heart that bordered on irresponsibility.  Another look at drugs that came out in the same year was Requiem For a Dream, a film that left me with tears in my eyes and my hands shaking.  Traffic left me detached.

And so, I found myself watching the film again some years later on the newly issued Criterion Blu-ray, partly for review purposes, but partly because I had always promised my comrade-in-arms at DMC Gordon, who picked Traffic for the best film of its year, that I would someday give it another chance.  I wiped my previous experience as cleanly as I could from my memory, tried to set down any negative baggage that I wanted to carry with me into the second viewing, and tried to look at the movie with fresh eyes.

It worked.

Everything about the movie that I once saw in negative light now struck me as remarkably brave.  Each aspect that once struck me as a fault became a strength.  What I once viewed as emotional detachment I now saw as quiet solemnity.  I don’t believe that Soderbergh was trying to say that we’d be better off without a so-called “drug war”…merely that it cannot be fought or won under current circumstances.

Soderbergh does this by weaving a complex tale of different stories, characters, and locations, where each person we meet is involved in the war on drugs on one side or the other…sometimes one side, then the other.  The stories aren’t fraught with emotion, but with a kind of bitter clarity.  Each has a point to make, and in all, there are many points to make, which is why I don’t think Soderbergh lingered on each one with emotional truancy.  Facts are cold and indifferent.  Our reactions are what make them otherwise.

Over the course of the film we see a Mexican cop, Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Del Toro, in his Oscar winning role), a noble soul who does good work only to see it fail because there are forces more powerful than he or the police who don’t want the work to succeed.  We see a newly appointed Drug Czar, Robert Wakefield (Douglas), who naively believes he and his position can make a difference, but ironically, his failure is foretold by his inability to protect his own daughter Caroline (Christensen) from drugs.  There are two DEA agents, Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzman) who seem to win one battle only to see ultimate victory pull further away.  And finally, we meet Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), a pregnant wife whose world and life of luxury take a horrific turn when she learns her husband Carlos is not a legitimate businessman, but one of California’s supreme drug lords…a fact she learns only on the day he is taken away.

In one way or another, they are all pawns in this larger game, and Soderbergh recognizes them as such.  Which is why, I think, we don’t feel for them as much as we experience each individual’s part of the process and are allowed to piece them together to come up with the best conclusions we can.  Suffice to say, many of the characters go through great transitions from start to finish as they either reject or embrace the futility of their actions.  No character’s evolution, however, is as startling as Helena’s…sometimes survival instincts outweigh all others, including maternal and moral ones.

Steven Soderbergh has never wanted for good casting for his movies, and here he has an amazing troupe of actors all at peak form.  From the venerable veterans like Douglas, Zeta-Jones and Cheadle to the unforgettable newcomers like Christensen, this is a cast that makes the most of every opportunity.  But the biggest mention belongs to Benicio Del Toro, whose complicated and weighty portrayal of Javier remains one of the best performances I’ve seen so far in the new millennium. 

But I must at long last give credit to Soderbergh himself, who managed to fashion a big, star studded movie with all the guts and integrity of an independent film.  His stamp of control is indelible; he even filmed the movie himself under a cameraman’s pseudonym.  Aspects of the film that I initially considered problematic were actually good touches…his use of color, for example, creating harsh and deeply saturated monochromatic images to coincide with various locations (hot yellows for Mexico, cold blues for Washington, full natural colors for California, etc.) actually help give the picture both style and rhythm, and invoke not only our memory of each location, but a sense of what to feel about them as well.

Perhaps the most intelligent line in the film comes from the politician who argues that it’s not a problem of supply, but a problem of demand.  There would be no drug trade, in other words, if there weren’t users…yet sadly, that’s another front the war is being lost on.  Despite efforts in education, treatment, and rehab, normal everyday people like the rest of us become users and ultimately victims.   As supplier Eduardo Ruiz (Ferrer) points out to Gordon and Castro, the drugs they seized from him will only be bought by his “customers” from some other source.  What did they in fact stop, if anything?

The war on drugs has many fronts, but even more victims…as such, it’s not a war that we should stop fighting.  But Traffic clearly points out that we cannot hope to continue to fight it the way we’ve been doing.  It’s time, as Wakefield says in the film, to think outside the box, and to imagine what we could do if there were no limitations.  Then try to do something about those limitations.

It may not work in the long run, but at least it would give us something to hope for.

Video ***1/2

High definition brings a new dimension to this offering.  Certain sequences, like the ones in Mexico, have a deliberate tint and graininess to them; these are not reproduction problems but the intention of the filmmakers.  Images are sharp and clean and well-detailed throughout, and each of Soderbergh’s extreme tonal schemes replicates well.  High marks.

Audio ***

The DTS HD 5.1 track is a good, but unusual offering.  During an early shootout scene, I noticed no activity coming from the rear stage, which I thought was a mistake, but for the most part, the back speakers actually carry parts Cliff Martinez’ terrific score, opening up the orchestration for a more full sound.  The .1 channel gets plenty of work though, both from the score and from the action sequences.

Features ****

Criterion outdoes themselves yet again with a Blu-ray that’s packed with terrific and interesting extras, particularly for those keen on studying cinema who want to know how certain aspects of moviemaking are done!

It begins with three terrific commentary tracks…the one you’ll want first is by director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan.  It’s a solid listen from start to finish, with plenty of good information and detail, and even a little humor from time to time.  Soderbergh remarks that the nice aspect of being his own cinematographer is that he can do things that most would get fired for!  The second commentary is by producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford, along with consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien.  This track is less about the making of the movie and more about the events that inspired it and the actual drug war.  The individuals were recorded separately, but this is still quite a good listen, particularly the consultants, whose knowledge and research proved the jumping off point for some of the stories in the film.  The last commentary is by composer Cliff Martinez, which also includes the isolated score and a couple of pieces of music that were not included in the film.

If that was all there was, you’d have gotten your money’s worth already, but we haven’t even started!  The disc also includes 25, count ‘em, 25 deleted scenes with optional Soderbergh/Gaghan commentary for each.  You can play ‘em all at once, or pick your favorites.  Almost all of them are worthwhile; most were cut for purposes of economy and nothing else.  My favorite is the last one…Ms. Zeta-Jones has an infectious laugh!  There are also four pieces of “additional footage”…different from the deleted scenes in that they are still raw and unedited.  Among others, you will see more from the real politicians and lobbyists discussing the war on drugs.  Multiple angles are available here, too!

There are three filmmaking demonstrations:  one involves the five step process for creating the look for the Mexican sequences, one on editing with multi-angle option and commentary from editor Stephen Mirrione which takes a look at several key scenes and how they were constructed, and one on dialogue editing, where sound editor Larry Blake discusses one of the least glamorous but most important aspects of the soundtrack.

Rounding out are a couple of trailers, five TV spots, and a look at U.S. Customs trading cards of their canine detection squad.  An amazing package!

Summary:

Traffic jams, and I’m glad I got the chance to re-evaluate this film and the achievement it represents.  Criterion continues to be known for two things:  the best and most careful presentations of classic films, and incredible Blu-ray releases of other studios’ lackluster discs.  This one is a shining example of the latter…I'm glad to see it back.

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