Review by Michael Jacobson
Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle,
Luiz Guzman, Miguel Ferrer, Erika Christensen, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 147 Minutes
Release Date: March 7, 2006
saw Traffic on its first day in theatres six years ago.
And I didn’t like it.
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.
so, I found myself watching the film again some years later on the newly
issued Criterion DVD, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
may not work in the long run, but at least it would give us something to hope
can’t say I notice much difference between this Criterion offering and the
former one put out by USA, which is fine…it’s a quality anamorphic transfer.
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
Dolby Digital 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
outdoes themselves yet again with a double disc set 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!
One contains 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
that was all there was, you’d have gotten your money’s worth already, but we
haven’t even started on Disc Two! It
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!
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.
out are a couple of trailers, five TV spots, and a look at U.S. Customs trading
cards of their canine detection squad. An