"We light the park, so the kids can play..."

Forget Erin Brockovich. Traffic is the film Steven Soderbergh should be showered with hosannas for. This close dissection of the arguably inneffectual drug war being fought by the US government is so complex, so intricate, that I am surprised that the film has met with commercial success. It weaves together multiple storylines with a heart surgeon’s precision; people have told me that the film has “no plot” when in reality, it’s all plot. Perhaps a little too much plot for some.

The cast of characters is almost overwhelmingly expansive. Benicio Del Toro, certain to be nominated for an Oscar, plays Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a Mexican cop who is enlisted to help bust a drug cartel but winds up entangling himself in it. Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are American DEA agents trying to bust wealthy businessman Carlos Ayala and his drug-smuggling business. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays his wife, who suddenly finds herself alone and threatened and Dennis Quaid is Carlos’s business partner who tries to comfort his wife.

In what might be considered the film’s central storyline, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is being inducted as the nation’s new drug czar. He visits Mexico to get down and dirty and familiarize himself with the nitty-gritty of the drug trade. Meanwhile his daughter (Erika Christensen) is getting involved with drugs herself, getting stoned with her rich friends and eventually prostituting herself to get more.

Traffic spreads itself out, but it doesn’t spread itself thin. It bounces around between plot lines but doesn’t lose an iota of characterization; the players here emerge as vivid people, not just pawns in a plot that’s aiming for bigger and better things. Robert Wakefield is an especially impressive character and his conflict with his daughter is genuine and disturbing.

Soderbergh coaxes uniformly terrific performances from his stars. Douglas won’t get the Oscar nomination he has earned for his portrayal of the troubled drug czar. The somewhat less deserving Del Toro probably will; I think people are just impressed by the fact that he spoke Spanish throughout the whole movie despite being a non-native Spanish speaker (though I’m told his Spanish is terrible). Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, gives an underrated performance as the illicit businessman’s wife; there is a great scene in which she brings out lemonade to the two DEA agents, thinking they are concealed, spying on her from a van outside.

The film struck me as being a little overdirected: as the settings change, so does Soderbergh’s camerawork and the changes are so drastic as to be a little distracting. But this is the most minor of quibbles when one considers how well-made the film is as a whole. The balancing of the plot lines is the most elaborate juggling act that I’ve seen all year; writers Steven Gaghan and Soderbergh deserve not only Oscars, but the Nobel Peace Prize for pulling this off.

There is a beautiful metaphor running throughout the film: lighting a baseball park so that kids can play. This is the film’s message: instead of uselessly fighting the drug war on the cartel front, we would be more successful lighting the way for kids and helping them get off and stay off drugs. The film ends with a shot of Del Toro’s character watching children play baseball at night on a lighted field. It’s a beautiful way for the story — both the film’s and our country’s — to end.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log


Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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