Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is one of those rare movies that can be called a new American classic without any snark or irony. Watching it more than a decade after its theatrical release feels strange because you realize how much it has influenced countless films, television shows and in a way helped redefine an aesthetic that would become standard in the years that followed it.
It also serves as a great reminder that Soderbergh might be the most adventurous auteur in contemporary history. Traffic was his tenth feature film and, at the time, also his most ambitious. Adapted from a British miniseries by the extraordinary Stephen Gaghan (who would use this movie as inspiration for his own directorial debut Syriana) the film combined the all-encompassing spirit of a Francis Ford Coppola gangster flick with Robert Altman’s aesthetic sensibilities.
Traffic focuses on three parallel stories interconnected by drugs. The film separates the stories through a clever visual device: color filters that give each of them a distinctive personality. One of the stories takes place in Mexico and has Benicio del Toro play Javier Rodriguez, a police officer who becomes tangled in a web of corruption involving high rank officers and notorious drug traffickers. Across the border we meet Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a San Diego woman, whose husband (Steven Bauer) is arrested on, rightful, charges of drug trafficking leaving her to run the family business. Across the country we are introduced to Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio judge appointed by the government to become the new “drug czar” not knowing that his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a cocaine addict.
The three stories share a common denominator and intersect only by default, yet the film’s strength lies not precisely in the majestic work of orchestrating all the actors and plot lines, but in its intention; Soderbergh forgoes the facile way of the didactic, to instead capture a precise snapshot of a time and place. His movie is by no means as interested in judging these people as it is in observing them.
Another key aspect of Traffic is how it reminds us that first and foremost drugs are one of the most profitable businesses in the world, the film observes the distribution of drugs with a keen eye that abstains from placing any moral clauses, precisely because we see the way in which entire countries’ economies depend on illegal activities. Perhaps more time appropriate than ever, the film serves as an eerily prescient spectacle that reminds us that the “war on drugs” might never truly stop.
Twelve years after its release, the film can be juxtaposed with the infinite drug legislations that have come and gone with varied, usually ineffective, results. It’s essential to notice that at no moment whatsoever does Soderbergh give the film a satirical mood and never tries to turn it into a portrait of desolation and hopelessness. He lets audiences make up their own minds.
Like 2011’s Contagion, which deals with the unstoppable spread of a virus, Soderbergh seems to be ahead of his times in terms of “what’s next” destruction; however he does all of this without recurring to exploitative methods. Just notice in Traffic the way in which he turns Helena into a drug queen without ever making us forget she’s a mother and wife, or the way in which he never mocks Judge Wakefield for his misfortune. These are all signs of an auteur who is more interested in finging signs of humanity in moments of chaos than in passing out harsh judgment.
Soderbergh has inevitably become one of the most humanist filmmakers, but he does this without giving up his experimental filmmaker essence. Besides being a superb essay on the human condition, Traffic is also a genius study about the way in which we respond to color, editing and sound mixing. Very few films get better with age, to see Traffic today is to uncover layers that would’ve been impossible to discover when it first came out.
Traffic is one of The Criterion Collection’s most iconic releases and this Blu-ray version is truly essential. The high definition transfer makes the film seem more “real” while keeping a rightful distance between audience and movie. The disc also features three different commentaries, the best being Soderbergh’s. Twenty five deleted scenes (which highlight the film’s economic editing) and a series of TV spots and trailers round out this edition.
Perhaps the most astonishing bonus features are three demonstrations which take us to the heart of filmmaking. The first describes the film’s painstaking color correction to reveal how the director meticulously insisted on a specific hue and amount of film grain to create an emotional response from the audience. The second demonstration has editor Stephen Mirrione show how a scene’s tone changes just by letting a shot go on for a few seconds, or toying with the image and sound. The third featurette gives us a glimpse of the dialogue editing, making this Blu-ray edition one of the most immersing film-school-in-a-box experiences.