"Traffic", the new film directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring a variety of excellent actors is the best film of the year. I still have a few to see yet, but "Traffic" combines great performances by everyone, just perfect, with superb writing and a visual style that is simply short of amazing.
"Traffic", on the most simplistic level, tells three interwoven stories of different people involved in the drug business. Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio State Supreme Court Justice, has just been appointed to be the US Drug War Czar by the President of the United States. He begins commuting back and forth to Washington, D.C., leaving his wife (Amy Irving) to deal with his daughter's (Erika Christensen) growing problem. In Tijuana, State Policeman Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner are trying to make an impact on the growing war on drugs, but their impact barely registers. They are recruited by General Salazar, the Mexican leader against the war on drugs. In San Diego, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested in an elaborate sting operation set-up by two cops Montel Gordon and Ray Castro (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman). Ayala's pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), must learn how to maintain their lifestyle in affluent La Jolla while her husband is in jail. She turns to the family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid).
My synopsis of the story does it little justice. "Traffic" is an epic film with many characters and many great actors embodying those characters. Each of these stories takes the characters to places that they never thought they would go and in some cases didn't even know existed. This is a thrilling aspect of the film. Yes, the journeys are dark but their unpredictability keeps the audience guessing and thinking and wondering. How often can you say that after viewing a film?
Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite directors. From his first film, "sex, lies and videotape", he has created a series of films that are always interesting, usually very good or great, and seem to challenge the filmmakers skills. He doesn't seem content to make safe, predictable films. He followed the enormous success of "sex" with "Kafka", perhaps his own out and out failure. Since then, he has created films that are always a pleasure to watch. "King of the Hill" (no, not related to the animated television series) is probably one of the most underrated dramas to come along in a long time. "The Underneath" is an amazing experiment in modern Film Noir. He uses color in "The Underneath" as black and white is used in great Film Noir from the 40s and 50s. I wrote a lengthy opinion on the film if you would like more details. "Out of Sight" was Soderbergh's first big studio film and it is a treat. A funny, spot on adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, Soderbergh continues to refine the cubist narration that he introduced in "The Underneath". Scenes start and end in the middle of other scenes, dialogue stops and ends abruptly. It is much more effective in practice than in description. He also helps George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez create a chemistry that is rarely scene in films. "The Limey" starring Terrance Stamp and Peter Fonda continues his use of the narrative techniques, taking them to a higher level. Then Soderbergh directed a little film called "Erin Brockovich", which will probably earn Julia Roberts an Academy Award. In "Brockovich", Soderbergh uses the narrative techniques he experimented with previously, but tones them down considerably, creating a film that is more accessible to more people. My point for this brief history of Soderbergh's career is that he has refined his craft continuously, creating great films that have lead the way to "Traffic".
"Traffic" uses the narrative techniques only briefly. When it is used, it helps to punctuate, to underline what has happened or what was just said. He does use color in a very unique and interesting way. Each of the three stories has a unique, interesting look and feel. The Drug Czar scenes set in Ohio and Washington are washed with steel blue, to invoke the cold, winter like settings of the areas, the marble and stone buildings, the lack of passion the people feel. The Tijuana and Mexico scenes are overexposed and blurry at the edges, capturing the sun drenched landscape perfectly. San Diego is affluent and beautiful and is lit to highlight the rich colors of the landscape. In addition to creating a visually stunning look, the different color schemes help the viewer keep the various stories straight. As characters cross over between the different worlds, the enter the different landscape.
Each of the actors creates a role that is simply perfect and very memorable. The most impressive is probably Benicio Del Toro. He plays Javier Rodriguez, a copy in Tijuana, really a very small player in the war on drugs. He seems to recognize the insignificance of his role, but continues to forge ahead. When he and his partner are recruited by General Salazar, he sees the potential for greatness and becomes a different man. As things change again, he becomes, yet again, a different man. His character takes many turns, surprising us, taking us along for the ride. The performance is subtle, believable and remarkable. Michael Douglas plays a conservative Judge appointed to take over the role of US Drug Czar. At first, he is excited by the power and potential for change. Then he realizes the scope of the problem, the ineffectiveness of the current programs, and then he witnesses first hand how the war on drugs hits home. All of his beliefs and perceptions are challenged. Douglas brings an intensity to the role that we are familiar with, but he also modulates the role. His intensity is quiet, his rage is subdued. In short, he doesn't chew the scenery, as we have seen that he can do. Dennis Quaid brings a smarmy quality to his role as a shady attorney that is pitch perfect. Quaid reminds us that he is a very accomplished actor, someone who is deserving of the stardom they received for earlier work. Quaid also turned in a very rich performance in "Frequency". Hopefully, he will enjoy a renaissance. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are very funny and believable as two cops trying to make an impact in the war on drugs. Miguel Ferrer plays a witness with an intensity that helps us believe he is both afraid for his life and tough enough to live through the ordeal. Initially, I had some problems with Catherine Zeta-Jones performance, but once I realized what she was trying to do, I appreciated it. Many well known actors appear in cameos that are very effective; Albert Finney, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek, James Brolin, Steven Bauer and many more add to the richness of the film and the characters.
"Traffic" is about the war on drugs and presents many viewpoints from both sides of the subject. It shows the use, the consequences and the pervasiveness of the culture on American, and to a smaller extent, Mexican society. Some of these scenes are very difficult to watch, but it is necessary to feel the full impact of the story.
"Traffic" proves that the film's director is at the top of his game. It also makes the anticipation for the director's next film, a star-studded remake of "Ocean's 11" even higher.
"Traffic" is a great film. Currently, it is only playing on a few screens across the nation. If you plan on attending one of these screenings, I would recommend purchasing your tickets in advance to prevent showing up for a sold out screening. The film will open across the country on January 5. Run, don't walk.