I’ve always found Steven Soderbergh to be a rather eclectic director as two of his films are rarely the same unless of course they’re sequels. So, in the same year that he made the rather mainstream underdog drama Erin Brockovich, he also directed the multi-layered drug epic Traffic.
Based on the 1980s Channel 4 miniseries of the same name; Traffic saw Soderbergh tackle the war on drugs by telling three interconnected stories. The first and most powerful story followed police officer Javier Rodriguez, a mild-mannered enforcer who was hoping to clear up the drug problem in Tijuana. However, Rodriguez’s recruitment by the seemingly good-natured General Salazar later proved to be an almost fatal mistake as he found himself caught between two rival gangs. Meanwhile, in America, Judge Robert Wakefield is tasked with heading up the president’s Office of National Drug Policy. Inspired by Salazar’s phony efforts to clean up Mexico, Wakefield hopes to employ similar methods in the USA. However, Wakefield’s problems are closer to home when it appears that his straight A-student daughter Caroline is becoming more and more dependent on drugs. Caroline’s problems get so bad that eventually Robert decides that he can’t fight a war against his own family. The weakest story for me saw the arrest and trial of Carlos Ayala, a drug lord working for the cartel that Salazar was trying to bring down in America. The problem with this story was that it was told from the eyes of Carlos’ trophy wife Helena, who struggled to cope after her husband’s arrest. This story was also the one that ran out of steam quickest and proved that not everybody could be brought to justice.
Traffic won four awards at the 2001 ceremony including Best Director for Steven Soderbergh, Best Screenplay for Stephen Gagan and Best Editing. Additionally, the wonderful Benicio Del Toro won Best Supporting Actor for his powerful portrayal of Javier Rodriguez; whose story arc is possibly Traffic’s most compelling. Del Toro’s gritty performance felt realistic in tone and his final facial expression when he saw the local kids playing baseball provided the perfect end to the story. I also enjoyed the performance Michael Douglas gave as the increasingly desperate Wakefield, a man who was forced to juggle working for the President with looking for his drug-addled daughter. Although I found Douglas’ performance to be gripping, I found this story a little hard to take a times. I found Gagan struggled to write believable dialogue for Caroline her boyfriend Josh; whose conversations didn’t feel like they were coming from the mouths of teenagers. In addition I felt that Caroline went from casual drug user to thieving prostitute rather quickly and I had to suspend my disbelief quite substantially in order to get on board with her downfall. Meanwhile, I felt that Catherine Zeta Jones was miscast as Helena and the scene in which she tried to do a drug deal was just laughable. However there were more hits than misses in a film which is a real testament to Soderbergh as he ties all three stories together perfectly. I personally loved the way in which all three stories are shot differently with a colour representing different areas. So for example the Mexico scenes were given a grainy feel, the Wakefield plot was given a blueish tinge and Carlos and Helena’s world was richly produced. Although I could’ve done without some of the scenes involving Zeta-Jones’ Helena, Traffic was definitely a film that grew on me thanks to Soderbergh’s deft directorial flair. Whilst I do believe he’s made better films, Traffic is definitely his most ambitious and therefore its right that it’s the one he received his Oscar for.