'Traffic's Three Parallel Stories Interconnected by Drugs are Still Vivid and Relevant

Adapted from a British miniseries by the extraordinary Stephen Gaghan, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic combined the all-encompassing spirit of a Francis Ford Coppola gangster flick with Robert Altman’s aesthetic sensibilities.


Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Amy Irving
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-01-17

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.