Columbus district judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been appointed national head of drug policy. While he’s methodical and stridently goal-oriented, he’s ill-equipped for the task. Wakefield finds the government responding to a flood by issuing buckets, and he’s blind to trouble at home: His bright, accomplished teenage daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), has graduated from casual drug use to freebasing.
Meanwhile, on the front lines of the drug war, law enforcement officers (true believers) work on either side of the United States-Mexico border. In San Diego, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) finally nab the local kingpin, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), forcing his pregnant, socialite wife, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to take over in his absence. In Tijuana, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) attempts to quash the local cartel one bust at a time, but finds his efforts hindered by crusading Mexican army General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian).
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who adapted the story from the British miniseries, “Traffik,” covers a lot of ground succinctly. He also throws out more questions than he dares attempt to answer, and the drug industry apparatus is seen as so complex that no one person (a mere cog in the machine) can fully grasp its inner workings. The film’s why-bother fatalism is tempered by the belief that altering one little parcel of the planet is still a worthy goal. But while Traffic is quite perceptive about how race and exploitation factor into drug distribution, its biggest flaw is portraying Caroline’s addiction as every white, suburban parent’s worst fears of the black underclass.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s best films (sex, lies and videotape, King of the Hill) mine the fruitful terrain between American independent and mainstream moviemaking. But in Out of Sight he established a specific tone and style — naturalistic, intimate, unsentimental, coolly confident — which elevates Traffic far beyond genre expectations.
Soderbergh, who’s continually experimenting, even creates a distinct visual palette for the three story lines in Traffic: Mexico is filtered through a washed-out yellow which makes everything as hazy as the line between outlaws and lawmen; the upper-echelon establishment Wakefield confidently strides through is bathed in cool blue hues, reflecting the meticulous formal order of WASPdom; and the refined opulence the Ayalas’ reside in is viewed via the clear, intensely vivid light that allows Californians the belief that they’ve discovered paradise.
As the stories begin to intertwine, the colors subtly bleed into each other, a technique which works unconsciously on audiences and only feeds our addiction to movies. Traffic proves that pure cinema — which satisfies prescribed needs and inchoate desires — is Soderbergh’s drug of choice.
E-mail Serena Donadoni at email@example.com.