Recently I have been spending a few nights re-acquainting myself with some of the most popular films from the first decade of this century. This is in part due to my lack of broadband in the house and also my apathy in maintaining the newness of my DVD collection. So I’m stuck with a big case of ten to fifteen year old films. But that’s okay.
Traffic is a Steven Soderbergh film which gained both audience appreciation and a shedload of awards. It charts the movement of drugs across the Mexican and US border and the efforts of both administration’s efforts to halt said movement. In between the two plus hours of the film the documentary style cinematography is broken up with a melodramatic subplot or two which endeavors to show the human cost of drug taking.
At the time Traffic looked like very little else. We were in the midst of the uncomfortable crossover of textbook 1990s filmmaking being taken over by the digital age. Soderbergh himself had plans to rework the Ocean’s Eleven crime caper, a vacuous but entertaining exercise in 3D camerawork, lighting and cgi. Here he displays his passion for cinema verite, differentiating the changes in location by generously grading each one with either yellow tints for Mexico and blue for Washington. I later learned that he operated the camera himself a large number of the handheld shots. Bet the unions didn’t like that.
Traffic is a template for almost everything which has followed since in terms of raw indie filmmaking. Shaky cameras, jump cuts, the aforementioned grading. This could mean that you feel some kind of anger towards the film merely for the imitation it has spawned. But that would do Soderbergh little credit.
It is a sweeping epic kind of quality. In a similar vein to maybe Heat or indeed the TV series Miami Vice though with a far different aesthetic. The script while often verging on the side of lecture is informative and gives a good grounding in the basics of drug warfare in the US.
Really though the film might be best remembered as an exercise in having Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones in a film together, though in separate strands. Douglas plays a middle aged judge who gets promoted to DC to take on the tricky assignment of winning the war on drugs. He soon is to find out that he is part of an never ending industry and the war is keeping a lot of people in high paying jobs. He also learns first hand the effects of drugs on his family, as his private schooled daughter becomes beholden to crack.
For her part Jones is the heavily pregnant wife of a drug lord who is arrested and almost certain to face a lengthy jail term. As she pursued by the buddy cop team of Soderbergh regulars Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman, we see her trying to unravel the spools of her husband’s enterprise and how she is going to survive without him.
Of course the film is anchored by Benecio Del Toro, a hugely popular actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unbreakable Mexican cop. He is in fine form here, understated and proud with few ambitions beyond installing lights at the local baseball park so kids have something to do at night.
It is a fine film. The multiple strands of story move the action on at a good pace, wisely not dwelling too much on any character’s arc, instead giving them just about enough shade that we can make out their m.o. Many of the scenes too seem to be improvised which certainly add a sense of authenticity to the proceedings.
Ultimately though many will say it’s safe, a project designed to make some mainly white Hollywood A-listers feel good about themselves, all the while exploiting the rich and fertile ground of crime that Mexico always seems to provide in movieland.
But I still like it.