Really Angry About a Lot of Stuff
Traffic‘s first scene is disconcerting and tense. Titled “Mexico, 20 miles southeast of Tijuana,” it’s set in a seared-white desert and shot in grainy video-stock. At first the shots are either too far away and too close-up to read exactly, and the unfolding events are confusing. Two Tijuana cops—Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas)—stop and seize a truckload of drugs, then head off down the long dusty road back to town. Within seconds, they’ve been stopped themselves, and must surrender the truck to the local Mr. Big Stuff, one General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who comes equipped with a pack of armed and predictably surly soldiers. Javier and Manolo are visibly disappointed to lose credit for the bust they’ve worked hard to make, but they know how it goes: whoever has the most firepower wins, but only for a minute. And this will be Traffic‘s point—drugs are a system unto themselves, extending beyond state boundaries or legal jurisdictions. They cross borders, produce wealth, cost lives. And they never stop moving.
At once irate and exhilarating, epic and intimate, Steven Soderbergh’s movie has already won critics’ prizes and ten-best-list accolades. And it’s about as different from his first release of this year, “Erin Brockovich,” as it can be. Where the Julia Roberts vehicle drives straight (and self-consciously) into a car wreck of Happy Hollywoodness, the new film is all twisty and turny and irritable—it never pretends that good triumphs over evil. The primary makers—Soderbergh (as director and as cinematographer, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), producer Laura Bickford, and writer Stephen Gaghan—have adapted Simon Moore’s 1989 British television miniseries, “Traffik,” to reveal the systemic failures of the U.S. drug wars. Their hearts are surely in the right place; if there’s a worthier project for an aggressively marketed, must-see Movie Event, I don’t know it. Certainly, its structure and scope are impressive, weaving together three fragmented storylines, taking place simultaneously in Mexico and the States—the struggles of Javier and Manolo to resist Tijuana’s pervasive corruption; the efforts of DEA Agents Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman) to destroy a hierarchy of dealers in California, rung by rung; and the education of Ohio Supreme Court Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), newly appointed U.S. Anti-Drug Czar, pending Congressional approval.
For the most part, Traffic avoids an easy delineation between good and bad guys—almost everyone is vulnerable to the traffic’s flow, and some even seem surprised at what they end up doing to survive. Still, the movie succumbs to a few too many cliches and falls somewhat short of its own high-minded goals. On this tip, Wakefield’s story is by far the weakest. He’s a professional schmoozer with troubles at home: when his resentful wife Barbara (Amy Irving) observes his own addictions—to power, to Scotch, to a self-preserving distance from her—he won’t cop to any of it. The film makes the consequences for his ambition extremely personal, namely, the escalating substance abuses of his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), who is so mad and miserable, she can’t see straight. To hammer this home, the movie introduces her in mid-delirium, eyes glazing over as she drinks and smokes dope with her Cincinnati Country Day School classmates. Within seconds, her smart-ass boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) convinces her to smoke a little crack so he can jump her bones. She agrees. She doesn’t care.
Caroline has no reason to care. Her distance from the Mexican desert and Tijuana streets that open the film is, I suppose, a testament to the daunting extent of drug traffic. “Look,” the film is saying, “Cocaine slips by border guards under some smalltime smuggler’s floorboards, then wends its way to U.S. cities and—omigod!—the bourgie-burbs too.” This distance is drawn most sharply in the film’s differing treatments of Caroline and Manolo—both seduced and ruined during the course of the film. Caroline’s tragedy is conveyed in play-by-play, soap-operatic detail, but Manolo’s only appears in bits and pieces, mostly via Javier’s second-hand information-gathering, as he tries to save his friend. Granted, the movie is first addressing its U.S. audience, and maybe even that audience looking for more work like Soderbergh’s best (for instance, his most compelling film to date, “The Limey”, or his slyest, “Out of Sight”). This explains why Traffic makes an object lesson of Caroline, using her to show the effects of drugs and neglectful parents on this wealthy, Midwestern, straight-A high-schooler, so cherubic and wide-faced that she looks downright corn-fed.
But as such a lesson, Caroline is less a fully realized character than an illustration of her father’s (and likely viewers’) learning curve on how drugs move. It’s bad enough to see her looking pale and hollow-eyed under the influence, trying to wave away the crack smoke in her bathroom while daddy’s pounding on the door, but it’s actually annoying when she goes jonesing over to the “bad part of town,” where she solicits the company of older men—notably, a naked black one and a white one in a suit—in order to feed her nasty habit. These scenes are yucky, not because they convey the sheer awfulness of the girl’s situation, but because they’re overkill markers of her Descent Into Hell via sexual predations. Worse, the scenes’ emotional weight comes crashing down when Wakefield—suddenly and ridiculously turned into Charles Bronson—busts through her seedy motel room door. This is straight-up drug war propaganda: pot-puffing leads this child directly and inevitably to junkie-whoredom.
What’s most troubling about such overwrought silliness is that it detracts from what the film does well, which is to show characters’ nuanced and complicated reactions to situations where the moral ground is all but impossible to see. The non-resolution to Caroline’s storyline involves her halting, uncertain confession: “I guess I’m angry. I mean, I think I’m really angry about a lot of stuff, but I don’t know what exactly.” For me, this is Traffic‘s most profound moment of articulation, or better, inarticulation. That this girl can be so unself-conscious about her feelings is a function of her life experience. Like her father, Caroline is an uninterested bystander to her own life until she’s forced to look, hard.
This theme repeats again and again in the film, perhaps most grippingly for Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of affluent La Jolla-based dealer Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). When he’s arrested by Montel and Ray, hauled out of his swank white mansion in handcuffs, Helena is abruptly faced with dire circumstances. Pregnant with their second child, she’s suddenly left to her own devices, and initially horrified to learn that her country club lunches and charge accounts have been financed by such nefarious means. When she finds that she can’t turn to her husband’s none-too-bright lawyer (Dennis Quaid), Helena starts making her own decisions, on how to maintain the drug business and get her husband out of prison. Helena makes this turn not so much as a desperate act of self-preservation, but as a desperate act of lifestyle-preservation. Like Caroline and Robert Wakefield, she’s a long distance from having to make decisions based on poverty. She learns how to work drugs as a system, to make sense of their movements, to read their traffic.
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to Montel and Ray. Of all the film’s many characters, they appear to have the most acute understanding of where they’ve been and where they’re headed in this flow of traffic. At one point Montel and Ray are staking out Helena’s home, “hiding” in one of those surveillance vans that everyone recognizes if they’ve watched cops on tv or in the movies (and the movie acknowledges this cliche, when Helena actually comes out to offer them lemonade). For a moment, things look promising, and Ray is almost giddy when he suggests that they might get to bust some “white people,” that is, people at the top, not just the usual scummy lower-rung dealers. It comes off as a joke in the movie, but Ray’s sentiment also underlines the film’s most significant point. A lot of movies show you how drugs mess up addicts’ lives or contribute to street violence. This one accuses the “white people,” of ignorance, hypocrisy, self-interest, and ineptitude. Javier and Manolo, Ray and Montel toil away, day after day, hoping to get a handle on how the system works, how the product continues to circulate despite their best efforts. But the system is too vast and intricate, too essential to the machinations of national governments and international businesses. Traffic keeps moving.