Traffic (2000), directed by Steven Soderbergh, Spine #151 of the Criterion Collection.
After viewing the film, Traffic seems to be that landmark, eye-opening film on drugs we’ve all been waiting for. Yet on reflection and closer examination, one asks: have we really been waiting for this? It would be easy to say that all the right buttons are pushed in composition and style and that the design choices overshadow the film’s content, however the content itself is not that epic or revealing.
The film interweaves three stories. The first centers on a corrupt cop in Mexico as he works for, then informs on a drug cartel. The second focuses on DEA agents in California as they look to capture and prosecute members of a drug trafficking scheme. The third follows a federal judge as he is nominated by the President of the United States to become the country’s first “Drug Czar.” By the end, the film points out that drugs are a big business permeating every part of our culture, and that a “War on Drugs” is impossible to win. And?
A major flaw of Traffic is that there seems to be one intended audience: white suburbanites that have grown up on Disney movies and protect their children from R-rated pictures. This film looks to shock those sheltered people by being so “worldly” and violent, but the message is dumb-proof and Don Cheadle is your black man.
This movie is so slick, so clean, that much of its credibility is lost. And the film is like a suburban elementary school putting on the first Thanksgiving dinner: you have the turkey, you have the Natives, you have the Pilgrims, they have their feathers and their hats, but it’s nothing more than a cute image that dismisses the harsh historical reality. Here we have recognizable stars and character actors, obvious color pallet choices, and shaking camerawork that all point to a manufactured charade. The “grittiness” is all done by design.
Replace the Natives and Pilgrims with drug czars and drug lords, and the turkey with drugs and you get Traffic. That’s not to say Traffic is a bad film: some school plays still can be pretty cute.
Up next: #302 Harakiri