Movie News

MORIARTY Gets High On Soderbergh's TRAFFIC!!

Published at: Dec. 21, 2000, 6:09 a.m. CST

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

It was two Wednesdays ago that I saw Steven Soderbergh’s much- discussed new film TRAFFIC. It was the very first official Academy screening, the first time Soderbergh unspooled the finished film with all his final tweaks in place. When John Robie and I arrived, we were met by several friends and by Michael Carvaines, one of USA’s publicists.

Now, here’s the thing about publicists. Their job is to help set the mood for you as you go into a movie, and to damage control if a film is bad. It starts with that first phone call or the invitation in the mail, and for a film as important to a studio as TRAFFIC is to USA Films, it becomes very intense just before the screening. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten pretty good about looking at a publicist and knowing if they’re really excited about the film they’re discussing or if they’re just being professional. It’s even easier when it’s someone you’ve been talking to for a while, like Michael. He’s a good guy, and he’s always been brutally frank with me about what he likes and what he doesn’t. When he handed me the program for the film, his excitement was immediately evident. We’ve been talking about TRAFFIC back and forth for a while, but this was the first time I had the chance to ask him what he thought of the finished film.

"I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever been able to work on," he said. "We’ll talk about it afterwards." Inside the theater, I flipped through the oversized color booklet that I’d been handed. It’s got the central image from the original TRAFFIC teaser poster on the cover, the frozen figure with gun in hand. The first two pages have the effective, memorable tag line writ large: "NO ONE GETS AWAY CLEAN." On the next big splash page, the bleached out, almost ghostly image of a wall of trucks cutting across the Mexican desert serves as background to a row of men with automatic rifles. Each successive page shows one of the members of the large ensemble cast with quotes from their characters. Benecio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid and Erika Christensen are all given their own two-page layout. All of this intense hype is summed up, oddly enough, by a single sentence in the program:

"TRAFFIC evokes the high-stakes, high-risk world of the drug trade, as seen through a series of inter-related stories, some of which are highly personal, some of which are filled with intrigue and danger."

I tell you all of this by way of explaining why it’s taken me two full weeks to write this review. I knew as that screening unfolded that people were going to be calling this a "great" film, and it certainly is a film about great things, great ideas. But is it one for the ages? Is this the masterwork USA is clearly saying it is? I decided to let some time pass and see if the film stuck with me. I decided to see how I felt after that initial rush of ardor passed.

I’ve been anticipating the film for nearly a year for various reasons. First and foremost, I’m a fan of the direction Soderbergh’s heading as a filmmaker. It’s always exciting when you see someone who is obviously not just drifting from project to project, but who seems to be on a mission, on some sort of journey as an artist. As much as I thought the first half of his still-young career was interesting and eclectic (SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE, KAFKA, KING OF THE HILL, THE UNDERNEATH, SCHIZOPOLIS, GREY’S ANATOMY), it’s the reinvigorated and reinvented Soderbergh who excites me. OUT OF SIGHT, THE LIMEY, ERIN BROCKOVICH, and now TRAFFIC... I can’t think of a more impressive streak of commercial entertainment in recent memory.

And don’t start squawking at me about how he’s an arthouse director. The thing I love most about this new Soderbergh is that he’s unabashedly making mainstream movies. The thing that distinguishes his work is the decidedly un-mainstream way he approaches the films. OUT OF SIGHT and ERIN BROCKOVICH are old-fashioned movie star movies, the kind of showcases that take strong personalities like George Clooney and Julia Roberts and turn them into icons. THE LIMEY may be experimental in the way it fractures time, turning pieces of memory over like shards of broken pottery, but underneath the dazzling technique, the film is a fairly simple and straightforward story of revenge, a brokenhearted DEATH WISH with a soul. No matter how bold the telling of the story is, there’s no disguising the populist nature of what it is that Soderbergh’s doing.

And then there’s TRAFFIC. This is what can only be called a "big" film, the kind of film that our biggest directors were attempting in the ‘70s, equal parts entertainment and innovation. It’s ambitious stuff, but the real brilliance of it is how uncomplicated the characters we meet really are. Soderbergh and his screenwriter Stephen Gaghan aren’t out to trick us or impress us with some labyrinthine narrative or post-modern gamesmanship. Instead, they set up very recognizable types in very simple situations, allowing them to dig deep into each character and each situation, mining them for moral complexity and emotional truth. The effect is reminiscent to what Altman accomplished with NASHVILLE or SHORT CUTS, but we’re looking at something deeper here, something that’s got a more pointed political agenda. I’m amazed by Orrin Hatch and other conservative figures who chose to make brief appearances in this film. In recent news stories, Hatch spoke about how he appeared in the film because it was "about how drugs destroyed families." Ahem. Well... yes, that’s technically true. But it’s about the entire failure of the drug war on the family level and the political level. Soderbergh paints pictures both personal and public, and he manages to bring a keen intelligence to all of it. Part of that is in his casting, part of it is in how he approaches each storyline with a unique and appropriate visual technique, and part of it is the mere fact that he dared make this kind of film in today’s political climate.

Of the various storylines we follow, Benecio Del Toro’s is easily my favorite. Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez is one of the great film characters, a modern-day Bogart adrift in a sea of amoral indifference, doing his very best to not only survive in a world seemingly without rules, but thrive and eventually triumph. When we first see him with his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), we’re not sure who he is or what he does exactly. They watch a plane make an illegal landing but keep their distance. A cargo is offloaded from the small plane to a van. It’s only as the van is driving out that Javier and Manolo move in and we learn that they’re local Mexican policemen. Soderbergh, who served as his own director of photography on the film, gives all of the Mexico sequences a burnished, bleached quality that makes them feel hot, practically parching you as you watch. Javier and Manolo seize the drugs that the van is carrying, and as they drive back towards the city, they are intercepted by a group of military vans. Outgunned 30 to one, Javier and Manolo simply allow the soldiers to take the drugs from them. They're summoned to the presence of General Salazar (Tomas Milian), the best known figure in the struggle to rid Mexico of drugs. He offers Javier and Manolo work, an opportunity to make a real difference in their community. As they get involved with Salazar, though, both Javier and Manolo are compromised and faced with difficult, even impossible decisions. Everyone in this storyline is wonderful, and Soderbergh’s decision to actually shoot most of it in Spanish actually makes us focus more on Benecio’s subtle work. It’s all in his eyes, his body language. There’s no doubt that he’s become one of the most interesting and charismatic actors working at the moment, and it’s the soul he brings to things that sets him apart. Del Toro’s got this great lived-in quality, a world weariness that feel authentic. He’s not playing the bad boy; there’s real danger behind Del Toro’s eyes, just as there is compassion and wicked wit in equal measure. He manages to play every scene on several levels at once, and it’s because of the way he manages to be both open and guarded in the same moment that we are kept on the edge of our seats during his scenes. Like Gabriel Byrne’s work in MILLER’S CROSSING, this is a convincing portrayal of a man with a secret plan and a highly developed sense of survival. Watching Del Toro roll from moment to moment, adapting, staying a few steps ahead of those around him, is heartbreaking because of what he loses. He may save himself, but the price he pays in doing so is devastating.

Benecio must be amazing, because he actually looms larger in memory than Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, two of the best character actors working. They play DEA agents Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzman), key players in busting up the Obregon drug cartel. We first meet them as they’re setting up Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) for arrest. Local law moves in and a jurisdictional clusterfuck almost kills Gordon, frees Ruiz, and ruins their case. Almost. They manage to snag Ruiz and force him to roll over on Carl Alaya (Stephen Bauer), the local distributor for the Obregons. For the second half of the film, their main job is to keep Ruiz alive long enough to testify against Alaya in his high-profile trial, and the best scene in the film involving them comes late in the film in a hotel room as they prepare for the day’s testimony. Ferrer, like both Guzman and Cheadle, has done great work in character roles over the years, and the three of them rise to the occasion, delivering nuance and weight to their roles. Cheadle in particular continues to prove that he deserves a franchise of his own right now, something smart and full of action that allows him to be both funny and intense. Ever since DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and his searing portrayal of Mouse, he’s been worth watching. This performance is good enough to finally make him a star.

Michael Douglas anchors another key storyline, and he does fine, controlled work in a role that could have been played many different ways. Righteous indignation would have been the easy way to go, and now that I’ve seen the finished film, I’m actually glad Harrison Ford passed on the role. Douglas is far better at portraying this sort of powerful man, moneyed and privileged. I can imagine him as a justice rising to this sort of political appointment. He moves through this world with ease and confidence. In one fascinating early moment, Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is introduced to various real life political figures who all pitch their ideas about national drug policy at him. Wakefield is a nominee to be the new drug czar for the United States, and watching his journey through the system would have been interesting enough. Through his eyes, we get a look at exactly what America faces in trying to enforce a modern prohibition and ably demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining our current no-tolerance policy.

Wakefield’s got another education in store, though, and this is where my only real problems with the film occur. Caroline (Christensen) is a young teenager, a sweet faced girl with a wild streak. There’s a sequence early on where we see her partying with her boyfriend (Topher Grace) and their friends, and as good as the scene is, as right as the details of it are, there’s something wrong. Grace is a very good young actor, and his work here suggests that he will have a career beyond his current stint on THAT ‘70s SHOW, but he looks like he’s in his late teens or early 20s. Same with the rest of her group. For these images to have really had the ability to shock us, as jaded as we are by drug use in films, we should have seen children in these scenes. I’ve got friends who grew up here in Los Angeles and partied with the kids of the very rich, and the stories I’ve heard really do blow my mind, tales of 12 and 13 year olds stealing cocaine from their parents or even having the money to buy it for themselves. Many of those kids came out the other side unscathed, one of the dirty secrets of the drug war, and have grown up completely removed from that scene. Experimentation and the testing of boundries is part of the maturation process. Soderbergh illustrates that ably here if we compare Topher Grace’s role and what Erika Christensen is given to do. Topher has a poise throughout the film, even in the later portions. For him, drugs are recreation, a dangerous hobby. He may be the one that introduces Caroline to the world, but he can handle it far more than she can. For Christensen, it's a darker ride. Like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM earlier this year, this is a slide into addiction that Caroline makes. Actually, it’s more like a slow surrender, and she plays a number of grace notes along the way. Her single tear upon first shooting up is an unforgettable image, as is her sleepy smile at Douglas later, her murmured "Hi, daddy" a suckerpunch that is hard to shake. If the film surrenders to cliché in any moments, it’s with some of her material. She ends up sleeping with a big black drug dealer who plays as one of the few false characters along the way. There’s a sort of B-movie stock bad guy quality to him, and I felt like I was watching an afterschool special, a surprising tone shift in what seems to otherwise be so well orchestrated, so carefully modulated.

The final major storyline is about Helena Ayala (Zeta Jones), the wife of accused drug smuggler Carl Ayala. She’s clueless as to where her husband’s money comes from at the start of the film, or at least she claims she is. I think Zeta Jones does smart work here. It’s not flashy, but it’s not supposed to be. She confesses to Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), her husband’s lawyer, that she is terrified to be on her own, that she’s not qualified to provide for herself and her children if her husband’s money is gone. There’s real honesty in this moment, and in much of her work. It really is defining work for her. I don’t think she’s ever been given something this tough to play before. She’s got a scene with Benjamin Bratt, unrecognizable as a Mexican connection she visits to discuss a revised business plan, that is chilling. Just like with Bridget Fonda in A SIMPLE PLAN, there’s something so frightening about the image of a pregnant woman planning murder, ordering the death of someone even as she’s bearing new life to term. Soderbergh didn’t have to change the original script when Zeta Jones announced her pregnancy just before shooting began. It’s a wonderful accident that invests the film with extra power. Quaid does good slimy work as a lawyer with an eye on his client’s wife and fortune, and I’m starting to think that he should focus on just doing smart supporting roles. When he doesn’t have to carr the weight of a film, Quaid seems to do more daring work.

Cliff Martinez deserves special credit for his haunting score. This has been a good year for new sounds in film soundtrack work with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON all serving as magnificent works of art that stand alone from their respective films. One of the main reasons I’m dying to see the film again is to take note of the choices about when music is and isn’t used. It’s subtle work, but it’s got character and real brawn. All of Soderbergh’s technical collaborators deserve recognition for the wonderful work they do here. Stephen Mirrione is the editor on the film, and his work combined with what "Peter Andrews" (the pseudonym that Soderbergh shot the film under) did as a cinematographer should serve as an education to anyone who thinks that visuals can replace substance in a film or stand in for a bad script. Here, the visual stylization of the film simply underscores the narrative points being made.

All this having been said, do I think this is a great film? Yes... yes, I do. I think this is the kind of muscular filmmaking we always say we want, but which frequently fails when it’s actually released. It dares you to think, to feel, to experience all these points of view and try to make sense of them. The point of the picture appears to be that our arguments about the best way to handle the problem of drugs in America are doomed to always break down because of how fractured our national perspective is. There’s no common ground, no one answer, no easy solution to the social and financial and political problems we face. TRAFFIC doesn’t pretend to answer the questions it raises, and that’s the thing that seals the deal for me. Soderbergh’s not pretentious enough to think he’s got the answer that eludes everyone else. Instead, he’s held a mirror up for us to look at, and the carnival he’s captured makes for one of the most satisfying experiences you’re going to have in a theater this year.

"Moriarty" out.





Readers Talkback

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  • Dec. 21, 2000, 6:40 a.m. CST

    great review

    by Coopcooper

    i haven't had much interest in traffic, can't say why really, just haven't followed it. but this review really sparked my interest. and now i am really looking forward to it. again, good review moriarty. i'll have to check this out.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 6:44 a.m. CST

    Getting Away With It

    by Mr. Biege

    Memo to Moriarty: Next time you are in the local bookstore, pick up the new book called "Getting Away With It". It's a series of dialogues between Soderbergh and Richard Lester (director of "A Hard Day's Night" among others). Also includes excerpts from Soderbergh's journals. I'm loving it and think it should be interesting stuff for anyone who appreciates this guy.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 6:54 a.m. CST

    Awesome

    by I am_NOTREAL

    Great, intelligent review of what is hopefully a great, intelligent movie. Hats off.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 7:28 a.m. CST

    Moriarty, Have I Ever Told You I Love

    by Sirius

    your reviews? well done, old boy! i cannot wait to see this film, first and foremost because of Benicio del Toro. He's an excellent actor even if he did do 'Excess Baggage'. and his being absolutely gorgeous helps, too. your review is just making the wait even sweeter.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 9:44 a.m. CST

    Old men do it better thank you...

    by reni

    Mori, great work. One of the best reviews I've ever read. So absorbing I didn't see my dad creep up behind my PC and ask for his beer money. Work and Aint it Cool don't mix really, do they?

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 9:48 a.m. CST

    Right On! and the Web site kicks ass too...

    by auteurboy

    Great review Moriarty. You hit the nail on the head about this film. Has any one seen the website for this film? It's really amazing. Like a beautiful haunting puzzle. I've stayed on it for hours and found some incredible stuff. www.trafficmovie.com. Check it out. I'd like to see what other people think. It's even more effective after you've seen the film.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 11:01 a.m. CST

    seeing it tonight...

    by abcdefz

    From what I've read, this looks like a well-thought-out review. I skipped big parts of it because I'm seing a sneak preview tonight in San Francisco. I've been impressed with Soderbergh since "sex, lies..." and have seen everything except "Gray's Anatomy" and "9021Live." His short film, "Winston," is interesting and confident. "sex, lies..." was the first movie I saw when I moved to Sacramento, "Schizopolis" the first when I moved to the Bay Area. It was playing in a tiny theatre in SF and every time I thought it was too awful to keep watching, something brilliant would happen. (Those exterminator scenes... yuk.) I wish he'd act more; the comic double take he does in "Schizopolis" is probably the best darned double take I've ever seen. Oh yeah -- sixty-eighth!

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 11:12 a.m. CST

    Someone needs to take their meds...

    by All Thumbs

    Cameo, the doctor will see you now...***Just wanna say thanks to the guy who mentioned "Getting Away With It." I need some books to read for over the Christmas break. Gracias! Oh, and I can't wait to see "Traffic."

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 11:19 a.m. CST

    Can't wait to see it !!!

    by Jedi 7

    Great review I am dying to see this movie.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 12:29 p.m. CST

    great review, mori...

    by Toe Jam

    but i would have to argue with you last statement there. "traffic" definitely takes the stance that drug addiction should take the higher priority, rather than a pretty much ineffectual war against the drug suppliers. you see, it's just like the whole "supply & demand" rule. diminishing the supply only makes the demand greater, thereby increasing the number of would-be addicts. however, if the u.s. government were to spend more time and money on drug addiction, the problem would be nipped in the bud, right? at least, that's the message that i got from "traffic." other than that, you pretty much hit the nail on the head.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 2:34 p.m. CST

    Ahhh...now THAT was a review.

    by superninja

    I need a cigarette.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 2:43 p.m. CST

    Thank God for you, Moriarty

    by Sabrina

    I know I can always count on a beautifully written, thoughtful, trenchant, articulate review when you do it, Moriarty. As a huge Soderbergh fan who sees all his movies anyway, I still appreciate your clear insights -- makes me want to see "Traffic" on the first day it's out, rather than two weeks down the road. Thank you.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 3:03 p.m. CST

    Soderbergh hurting his own Oscar chances?

    by Lazarus Long

    With all the recent awards given out, it would appear Traffic is a front runner for the Big Oscar this year (or at least the front runner for film that will be upset by the underdog). However, with the Golden Globe noms being released, I noticed that Erin Brokovich is getting some serious consideration. Not that it was a bad film, but it wasn't one of the year's 5 best (or 10 best in my opinion). With a double nomination in the director category (nice but unnecessary), will Steve-O cancel himself out? Are the idiots who vote for the globes smart enough to know that Traffic is superior work? I'm going to guess that Soderbergh doesn't pull a double nom for the Oscars, they have a little better sense than that.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 3:43 p.m. CST

    good review

    by HeywoodFloyd

    it's interesting that you started your review (good job on that, by the way) by speculating on the true motivations of publicists. i saw a screening of it two weeks ago as well, and two of the people my girlfriend and i talked to from usa both used that same line about it being the best film they've ever worked on. now, i'm not all that familiar with usa's typical caliber of output, so maybe that statement really is true for many people there, but it sounds like the party line to me. having said that, i will admit that it was a decent film, benicio del toro was excellent, catherine zj was also good, and i thought cheadle and guzman had a bunch of good lines. the color coded filtration of the mexican scenes vs. the douglas scenes was a little to paint by numbers for me, but it was interesting. i also had no reaction to the rich kids using drugs, there was something false about it, maybe it was the casting, but i think it was probably the self exmaination that dominated their conversations--stoned and wired high school kids don't wonder about their place in society, they go to clubs and try to get laid or they watch movies. in the end, i think drug use and the drug trade are too topical a subject for a film to allow an unbiased review of it. if you don't like it, then it could be construed that you are denying that there is a drug problem in this country. it's a little bit like schindler's list in that respect, but it is a well crafted and decent film, though, one that the academy will probably like. soderberg has done a good job of going mainstream (regardless of whether that was his intention or not) and still holding on to his progressive filmmaking style and edgy subject matter.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 5:37 p.m. CST

    Hats off to your review, Moriarity.

    by Uncapie

    No doubt, Benecio Del Toro should get an Oscar nomination for his work because he steals the film. Outstanding perfomances by Cheadle and Guzman are great as well. Even Miguel Ferrar is a scene stealer but, overall I wouldn't see the movie again and don't think its a "Best Movie" contender. I can discuss spoilers after the AICNer regulars have seen it and teh reasons.

  • Dec. 21, 2000, 9:05 p.m. CST

    Traffic...deja vu....

    by Munkstomper

    Finally saw the trailer, and I agree that it looks like it's gonna rock, but wasn't there a BBC 4 part production (Played in the States on Masterpiece Theater on PBS) that was just like this story? It followed the drug trade, from Pakistan, where opium was grown and processed, to the drug dealer who was killed and the wife got involved. It was a brilliant production....This was sometime in the 80's....as I'm thinking about it, it may even have been CALLED "Traffic"....Jesus, please somebody else remember this..... I only remember it because it was as great story, and it was facinating to see how the whole drug trafficing world worked, from the people growing the poppies, living in poverty, to the people who processed the plants, and packaged it, to the smugglers in England....you saw the effects drug has on the whole process....I remember specifically the lead female character getting strip searched, right to the skin, cavity search and all at Heathrow Airport..... OK, I'll shut up now, hoping someone remembers..... ;)

  • Dec. 22, 2000, 2:36 a.m. CST

    Is there an "Easter Egg" in this review?

    by tonic

    Did anyone else click on the underlined "p" in "political" in the last sentence of the ninth (or is it eighth?) paragraph of Moriariy's review? It's a link to the "George W. Bush or Chimpanzee" website. I clicked on it just to see what it was & it was fucking hilarious, but I don't know what it has to do with this review. Was this a mistake, Moriarity, or did you do it on purpose to poke fun at our more-dumb-than-your-average-chimp President-elect?

  • Dec. 22, 2000, 2:45 a.m. CST

    BUSH OR CHIMP?

    by Captain Katanga

    click on the "p"...that site is hilarious!

  • Dec. 22, 2000, 6:58 a.m. CST

    Mainstream Schmainstream

    by :-o

    You guys and your fascination with "crossing over". I swear. Look. this director is great. This is not a dig on him or his movie which I haven't seen. What I despise are these continual euphamisms for selling out. The baby boomers did it in the eighties and our idealistic furor was at full volume. But now that the new generation is doing it we're supposed to see something different? We're supposed to accept that watering down your script and using Julia Roberts in your movie is a 'brilliant turn"? IT SHOULDN'T BE OUR CONCERN whether directors do mainstream movies to bankroll their future more personal projects. IT SHOULDN'T BE OUR CONCERN whether Good art comes to the mall. IT SHOULDN'T BE OUR CONCERN whether Soderbergh or Fincher or Wes Andersen take home Oscars--the ceremony has been bunk since 'Ghost' was nominated for Best Picture. We all saw Elliot Smith sing his song on that stage. We all saw Jonathan Demme win. We all saw Daniel Day Lewis get it. We all cheered for them. But there was no revolution. Nobody remembers. WHY IS THIS FEAT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU? You do art that is in any way inferior to what it could have been--had you not gone for the 'big' audience--you fail. Even if the flick turns out to be good it's bullshit. We are letting SO MANY good filmmakers off the hook for these greedy moves. Forget the mainstream. Stop protecting it. It's lazy. The best work always comes when you're hungry.

  • sheesh! I thought you would never pry your lips off his ass! But otherwise, good review.

  • Dec. 22, 2000, 11:35 a.m. CST

    Munkstomper - Give that man a kewpie doll!

    by Dr. Sid Schaefer

    Yes, there was indeed a brilliant BBC series called "Traffik", on which this film is based. It was shown in the States on PBS sometime around '89. I haven't seen it since then, but I seem to recall the Michael Douglas character being played by the guy who played Sarah Polley's father in "the Adventures of Baron Munchausen". But, of course, I could just be ripped to the tits on skag and hallucinating wildly. Hopefully, the series is available on video (Unlike the brilliant "Sword of Honour", which, unfortunately, is not)- it would certainly be worth renting.

  • Dec. 23, 2000, 8:55 a.m. CST

    TRAFFIC vs CTHD

    by abcdefz

    I'd hate to make that choice. See both! I don't know... I saw TRAFFIC Thursday night and am seeing CTHD this afternoon. TRAFFIC has a fantastic first 2/3, and the last third or so loses steam, mainly because the film remains realistic; i.e. no easy answers, little audience catharsis. But, man, what works really cooks -- it's great tuff, and I'll see it at least once more. About an 8.5 out of 10.

  • Jan. 8, 2001, 8:23 a.m. CST

    Traffic review?

    by wicked

    I just saw Traffic and I'm being assaulted by reviews of how other-worldly great this movie is. I have to disagree. I don't think the movie is bad, and I think the stylization and the acting is all-around good. What bothers me here is the story and the themes. Coming on the heels of much more brutally visceral films like Requiem for a Dream, the "horrible reality" that Traffic tries to show is actually fairly white. In fact, most of the movie is centered around arriving at the inevitable "it's all okay because we're good honest white folk" theme that most Hollywood movies opt for. Surprising for Soderbergh. Benicio Del Toro's story is by far the best and best-acted, but why is there NO background on his character? Why does he want to build things that will let him watch little boys run around at night? Without any background as to why (and the fact that his character is missing any established life other than his crappy partner) could make one assume he's a gay pedophile. Although that would be a humorous detour, I'm sure that's not the case, so why not give him some decent background? Catherine Zeta Jones is probably the best character in the film, as she goes from being innocent and wholesome to being brutally protective of her unborn baby and the life she has. I wish they would've gone the extra distance and have her show that she's actually BETTER at being a drug czar than her husband by discovering the bug in the last scene. As for her husband, Michael Douglas and his cracked-out daughter, it all is just too forced. How quickly the daughter resorts to crack-junkie activities without ANY display of fear or doubt or regret is a shameful oversight. As is her "deathbed conversion" to rehab with the parents being the most supportive people in the world. No, a little bit of reality in that story wouldn't have hurt. Mostly though, what bothered me about the movie was the uncompromised view that drugs are bad absolutely, and that the only way out is to not do any of them, ever. From a liberal filmaker like Soderbergh, I would've expected more gray area. To acknowledge the drug problem and also acknowledge the section of the population that experiments or even responsibly uses some drugs would've been the true brass ring that this film does not grasp. The fact that film circles and the populace are embracing this movie instead of something that is more earnest about the REAL truth of the matter is a good example of how compromised the film is at the very end. I wouldn't be surprised if the last two scenes were added after test screening showed people didn't like how honest the movie was. "How about the girl lives and goes to rehab with her loving parents at the end, and they all stay together?" "How about Benicio is NOT a criminal, or a degenerate gay pedophile and he really DOES just want to sit alone watching little boys play baseball late at night? Can you do that Stephen, can you make those edits? We'll get you a good rating, big release, and we'll toss you an oscar for the Julia Roberts movie. C'mon...."