"Traffic," Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling mosaic of a population under siege by a virulent enemy called drugs, arrives on DVD from USA Home Entertainment. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Supporting Actor (Benecio Del Toro), Adapted Screenplay and Editing. After seeing it twice in the last six months, "Traffic" should be required viewing for anybody who thinks that the war on drugs is as easy as "just say no." (Yes, that phrase dates me.)
Based on a BBC miniseries and sometimes playing like a $40 million episode of "Law and Order," "Traffic" interweaves three separate stories, representing various levels of the drug trade food chain. Actually, the film shows two nations fighting the war: the United States and Mexico. The first story introduces the battle perspective from south of the border, with Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a struggling Tijuana policeman continually thwarted by his own government in stopping the drug flow. Rodriguez and his partner Manolo learn that two major drug cartels are vying for control of the drug pipelines. Rodriguez lives a rough existence: his salary is $300 a month, he pays for his own handcuffs and sadly watches his peers advance through bribery and corruption.
The view from the American trenches comes from the second story featuring Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, an Ohio state justice named the new "drug czar" by the President to lead the national fight against the drug trade. While Wakefield naively urges his underlings to "think outside the box" in unraveling the chemical Gordian knot choking the country, he need not look any further than his own kitchen to see just how deep the drug problem cuts into the nuclear family: his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a heroin addict.
The third plot revolves around the efforts of two DEA agents, Montel (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman), to bring down Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a suspected drug trafficker with ties to the Mexican cartels. Upon his arrest, his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta Jones), unaware of her husband’s activities, learns about her husband’s dealings from confidant and policeman-on-the take Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid). She barely reels from the shock when Carlos’ suppliers come forward, threatening her unless she pays his outstanding debts. Slowly she understands the world she is living in and her actions play into the endless cycle of supply and demand, addiction into alienation, and commerce versus conscience.
Soderbergh masterfully juggles these stories, never exactly crossing but always swirling around each other. Pacing is critical when cutting between interwoven but not interdependent plots. For its two and a half hour running time, the film just whizzes by. Despite the ensemble cast structure, Del Toro clearly emerges as the film’s emotional core, winning his Supporting Actor Oscar hands down. His Rodriguez is a moral man caught in a universe where ethical behavior only burdens. His conflict even invades his dreams: in the first scene, Rodriguez recalls a dream about his mother in a life-threatening situation, a chilling metaphor of the human toll in the drug war. Douglas’ Wakefield starts off pompous and literally innocent of the magnitude of the challenge facing him. His predecessor (James Brolin in one of the film’s many cameos) dismisses Wakefield’s praise of his accomplishments with a forlorn "I don’t think I made a difference." When he discovers his daughter’s addiction, he blames anybody or anything that will take away the pain of feeling like an accomplice.
Yet the film has its flaws. Characters occasionally turn into philosophical mouthpieces, detracting from the reality of a scene. Caroline’s boyfriend/supplier Seth rants at one point about the socio-economic impact of the drug trade (Chapter 59). His diatribe potently dramatizes the tragic connection between drug dealing and race relations, but the right words flow from the wrong character’s mouth. My biggest issue is with Zeta Jones’ Helena. She goes from soccer mom to Lady Macbeth (this should have been kept secret; the trailer all but gives it away), realizing the only way to save her husband is to join his world. Yet her transformation feels rushed, like a scene is missing where we see the change occur. Warts and all, "Traffic" unfolds like a densely plotted novel, teeming with characters chained together by a heinous – and seemingly invincible -- umbilical cord
As photographed by Peter Andrews (with Soderbergh frequently running camera), the translation of "Traffic" from film to DVD presented numerous challenges. Each of the stories has an unique look; the Mexico scenes favor yellows and browns with grainy cinematography, the Wakefield section immerses characters in blues and grays, with the Ayala sub-plot the most "ordinary" in color scheme. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer coalesces the disparate photographic styles into a consistently detailed image. I especially enjoyed the Mexico scenes; under other circumstances, the grainy picture would be cause to criticize the telecine colorist or the compression author. Here, one almost feels the sun beating down. When colors can break through, they are accurate and sharp. Deep black levels and excellent detail delineation are evident throughout the presentation. Fleshtones, when not obscured, look natural and the source elements display no blemishes or imperfections whatsoever. Despite the gritty image and complex hues, digital or compression artifacts are happily missing.
The "Audio Options" menu gives brief explanations for the soundtracks offered on the DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 ("the same 5.1 mix heard in theaters") and Dolby Surround ("a two-track mix optimized for late night/low level listening…"). The 5.1 sound mix is rather low-key, creating a wide front soundstage without resorting to gimmicky, showy sound effect pans. Despite the presence of explosions and gunfire, the LFE channel kicks in during the more ominous passages of Cliff Martinez’s score. By contrast, the Dolby Surround track is much more assertive: the dialogue plays louder and sound effects have an edgier feel. When I lowered the volume, the stark quality gives way to a more balanced sound. I switched the audio repeatedly during the film and found myself enjoying both versions.
The film is in English, with big chunks spoken in Spanish with English subtitles. The Subtitle menu offers a choice of "Original Presentation" (with explanation), Spanish (captions occur only in the English language sections), French and English (default for entire film).
Three trailers, five TV spots and a documentary constitute the extras. Despite the wishes of many fans, there is no commentary track by Soderbergh or anyone else from the film. (Contrary to a growing perception, commentary tracks are not a "defacto" accessory for all DVD releases.) The U.S. teaser trailer plays the best, prominently highlighting the tag line "No one gets away clean." The U.S. theatrical trailer and the German (?) trailer are identical, giving away big chunks of plot and character surprises. The TV spots emphasize action, the critical raves and in one instance focusing solely on the teenage Caroline Wakefield character. (Studios don’t market to underage demographics, do they?)
"Inside Traffic" is an eighteen-minute documentary on the making of the film. Stuffed with interviews from ten actors, three producers, the screenwriter and the director, the examination shuffles between challenges on the set (illustrated with behind the scenes footage), narrative and character explication (film clips) and personal thoughts about the subject. The documentary seems too general to be specifically produced for the DVD and too unwieldy for use by the TV media. The Photo Gallery serves up forty stills from the film and production, with chapter access.
I can’t imagine watching "Traffic" repeatedly over the years. But I also can’t imagine not having this film in my library. It’s a difficult, challenging film that will hopefully one day become a time capsule of a long-ended era.
[Erratum by the reviewer: "Several readers have pointed out my error of separating Peter Andrews, the Director of Photography, from the director Steven Soderbergh. In fact, Peter IS Steven, as he was required to use another name for the credits. The DVD makes no reference to this and in the documentary you see Soderbergh running camera. Hence my deduction that Soderbergh was a camera operator for the DP Peter Andrews. Looks like the cover name worked! Mea culpa."]