Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Erika Christensen, Catherine Zeta Jones
Traffic examines the drug trade in the US and Mexico, and the so-called war being waged on that drug trade by the US government. Director Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan approach the subject from several angles with an ensemble cast of characters who range across the spectra of age, class, and ethnicity. From this broad base, the film builds the notion that where bureaucratic institutions fail, intelligent and committed individuals can make the carefully considered decisions necessary to effect real social changes that emanate from their own lives. Whenever a movie takes the position of valuing individuals over institutions it risks dismissal as naive, yet Traffic takes us there with enough depth and intelligence to merit the slightly less derogatory label "hopeful." Narrative cinema is uniquely suited to this sort of message because of the way in which it condenses issues and ideas into images of the lives and inter-relations of its characters. Within this framework Soderbergh transforms the difficult choices that his characters make into towering acts of heroism with genuine consequence.
todos tenemos nostro lado flacco
Early in the film Tijuana policeman Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) captures a drug cartel assassin—Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins Jr.)—by playing upon Flores’ homosexual desire. The sinister army general/drug lord Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian) wonders how he captured him so quickly and Rodiguez explains that "We all have our weak side." This statement, and the way it echoes through the lives portrayed in the film, forms a key to unlocking the meaning of Traffic. Furthermore, the fact that Rodriguez speaks these words becomes particularly important because among all of the characters here, he is one of the few who appear to have no weak side (the other is DEA agent Montel Gordon played by Don Cheadle).
The weak sides that we witness emerge from the ways that desires for money, power, and sex can devolve into either pitiable desperation or execrable greed. Along its trajectory, this downward spiral also leads to alienation from others and even from one’s own humanity. One such arc of character development is that of Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who, as the story begins, innocently believes that her wealthy husband makes his money as a construction contractor. When DEA agents nab her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) on drug trafficking charges, however, it shatters the lifestyle she has—with an apparent degree of calculation—married into. The delicate foundation of the class-based privilege that she enjoys crumbles as friends and financial institutions alike turn on her. She gradually transforms from a socialite whose worst problem is the possibility of her young son swinging his putter in the backseat of the family SUV to a desperate woman who enlists the aid of assassin Flores to kill the star witness against Carlos. At her lowest point she shouts into her cell phone "shoot him in the head!" so that when her former lifestyle and matronly character are reinstated, the grim undercurrent beneath the surface remains distinct. In exploring the drug trade from this particular angle Traffic demonstrates the tenuous and mercenary nature of the greedy capitalist.
Further problematization of economic privilege turns up in the story of newly appointed US drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) who becomes increasingly torn between his bureaucratic difficulties and more personal difficulties involving his heroin-addicted daughter (Erika Christensen) and his increasingly estranged wife (Amy Irving). The political machinations required by capitalism’s spectacular scapegoat, the drug war, do take their toll on the lives of the powerbrokers. "Money and power cannot buy happiness" is certainly a well-worn line, but Soderbergh’s matter-of-fact, almost remote delivery presents it in a form whose impact comes without the sentimentality of Titanic, the outlandish quality of American Psycho, or the irony of American Beauty. Without these qualities the well-worn line feels more truthful.
narrative ellipses: focusing on process, not product
Part of Traffic’s fascinating and paradoxically engaging remoteness comes from the design and construction of the narrative. The film’s multiple story lines disconnect within themselves and interconnect among themselves so that viewers constantly jump from narrative causes to narrative effects—the action itself, or "plot point" in writer’s jargon, often remains pointedly undramatized. In the case of the aforementioned apprehension of "Frankie Flowers" we see Rodriguez approach Flores in a bar and almost wordlessly attempt to pick him up (in the sexual sense of the phrase). Next, instead of witnessing an action-packed capture scene—as we might expect would form the centerpiece of this sequence—we leap immediately to a close up of the blindfolded assassin bound in the backseat of Rodriguez’s car. In this way Soderbergh forces us to engage with the narrative in a way that encourages us to fill in the gaps in action ourselves—there is never any flashback or detailed dialogic explanation of how the capture unfolded. Beyond the effect on the story of these ellipses in the action itself, the resulting gaps in the actor’s performances derail our efforts as viewers to gain access to directly dramatized character motivation and invites us instead to imaginatively supply these motives ourselves based on the sketches outlined for us. By structuring the narrative architecture, spare dialog scenes, and actor’s performances in this way, Soderbergh pushes viewers toward drawing our own thematic conclusions.
While many Hollywood movies are positioned (at least by their marketing departments) as products packaged with clear meanings ready for easy consumption, Traffic forcefully attempts to engage the viewer first in the production of the drama itself and then in the process of making meaning. This is at the root of Traffic’s anti-capitalist aesthetic in at least two ways. First, the difficulty viewers may have in apprehending/constructing the drama—with its multiple story lines, numerous characters and narrative ellipses—and its meaning translate to a potential label of "artiness" and hence unmarketability. It should go without saying that building in potential unmarketability runs counter to the goals of a capitalist enterprise. At a more theoretical level, in its most basic structural aspects, the film draws attention to the process of constructing a narrative. By making the viewer actively engage with that process or else find herself lost Soderbergh valorises the creative processes of storytelling and meaning-making over the pre-packaged "stories and meanings" as "products for mass-consumption" created by the capitalist Hollywood film industry. In this way a self-referential subtext underscores the primary narrative interrogation of the drug trade with the problematization of Hollywood movies echoing that of illegal drugs as escapist consumer products.
refusing "that kind" of power
Because Traffic is more a melodrama than an action movie the heroism displayed is subtle and often conflicted rather than explosive and unambiguous. Despite his sharply oppositional stance toward the US drug war as entrenched, bureaucratized institution —witness the vacuous, drippingly politicized discussions during the meet-and-greet party between Wakefield and various Congress people—Soderbergh takes a more ambivalent position with respect to law enforcement agents than he does to the lawmakers themselves. In fact, his most consistently heroic characters are the lawmen Rodriguez and Gordon (not coincidentally a Mexican and an African-American, respectively). They have personally taken on the project of the liberation of their communities from the tragic tyranny of the drug trade and time and again we witness their struggles to remain connected, flexible, and intelligent in the face of their own personal trials and tragedies.
Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer as the star witness against Carlos Ayala) perpetually—and, from the viewer’s perspective, quite convincingly—harangues his captors Gordon and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) about the pointlessness of law-enforcement efforts to curtail the drug trade. On the other side of the border, the corrupt General Salazar dangles the promise of wealth and power before Rodriguez. Gordon and Rodriguez’s commitments to principles of justice—as flawed as their real-world manifestations may be—remain steadfast and their seemingly small successes come across no less (and perhaps much more deeply) triumphant than any blockbuster action movie denouement.
Finally Traffic insists on holding out hope even for the privileged American white male. After resigning his position, Robert Wakefield speaks the film’s final, lingering lines in attendance with his wife at his daughter’s addiction recovery meeting, "We’re here to support our daughter, and we’re here to listen." In such intentional and attentive listening lies a unique strength that is perhaps greater than the power of any political or economic system.
ABOUT THIS FEATURE: My aim isn’t to help movies do well or poorly at the box office, but to convince you that movies (even mainstream Hollywood products) deserve our attention as works of art. The goal of art is to enrich our lives so much that "art" is inseparable from "our lives." Art products can open us to the direct creation of our individual lives and, by extension, our living cultural evolution. The moving image comprises the dominant art form of our era. In this commodified form art images tend to disconnect from their true goal. The purpose of critique is to reconnect art, a kind of theory, with the practice of life. Is this like pushing square pegs into round holes? Maybe, but practice makes it less difficult (as my own lifelong anarchist strivings would illustrate). So let’s indulge this approach to film, and see where it leads. I invite you to email me questions and comments firstname.lastname@example.org.
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