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Steven Soderbergh Blogathon-Traffic

February 1, 2014

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(Spoiler alert: Some key scenes of the movie are discussed in this review, readers please note).

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.-Global Comission on Drug Policy.

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Towards the end of Traffic, when the newly appointed Drug Czar or what is effectively Chief of the National Drug Control Policy, Robert  Wakefield( Michael Douglas), is about to give his speech on the 10 point methodology used to combat the illegal drug trade, he stops at a moment.  He is unable to continue further,  and then mutters “I can’t continue further. If there is a War on Drugs, then our own family becomes the enemy. How can you wage war on your own family”.  He walks out, unable to speak further, that one moment, sums up the entire War on Drugs, that has been taking place since more than a decade, a war that has no winners or losers, just devastated families and individuals. Robert should be knowing better,  his own daughter Caroline( Erika Christensen) had become a junkie, and he along with his wife Barbara( Amy Irving), had to go through a mental hell, getting her back.  Robert had been appointed as Drug Czar, owing to his tough stance on drugs, but the irony was that he would have had to battle the enemy right in his home, his own daughter.  Soderbergh’s  Traffic, looks at the world of illegal drug trafficking,  through  various angles. At the top you have people like Robert, with his missionary zeal against drugs, and you have the  fabulously wealthy drug lords like Carlos Ayala( Steven Bauer). At a lower end you have the foot soldiers men like  Javier Rodriguez(Benicio Del Toro) and Montel Gordon( Don Cheadle), the cops who are actually out there on the ground, tracking the drug mafia, putting their lives on the line, sometimes in vain. Basically Javier and Gordon, have the most thankless job of all, quite often doing the hard work, spending most of their life, in run down cars, equally run down apartments, walking through dead beat neighborhoods.  Caught in this war, are people like Caroline, her boyfriend Seth Abrahams( Topher Grace), and  Ayala’s socialite wife  Helena( Catherine Zeta Jones) who married him for the money, unaware what he actually does.

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What’s Washington like? Well its like Calcutta, surrounded by beggars. The only difference is the beggars in Washington wear 1500 dollar suits and they don’t say please re is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.

Traffic  is  Soderbergh’s  most ambitious movie to date, where he explores the illegal drug trade, through 3 different storylines, different backgrounds, different people, but all having their own part to play. From a posh Cincinati suburb to the centers of power in Washington D.C. to  the deserts of  Mexico, from posh San Diego neighborhoods to the run down back alleys of Tijuana, Mexico, Soderbergh keeps the action flowing back and forth. That he was a visual stylist is always known, but here, Soderbergh goes one step ahead, using different color schemes for each storyline. So when the story shifts to Robert and the posh Cincinati suburb, Soderbergh goes for a cold, blue color monochrome, in a way emphasizing the bleakness of the suburbia too.  The bluish, monochromatic tone, fits in well with the Washington DC offices too, where Robert plans his strategies.  Javier’s Mexican story is depicted in a dusty , strobe like feel, more brighter,  keeping in mind the Mexican atmosphere.  For the Ayala- Gordon story, Soderbergh keeps flashing the camera to and forth, with rapid inter cutting,  a much more sunny look and feel, keeping in mind, the Californian atmosphere.  In fact I would actually say, the cinematography of  Traffic by itself, deserves a separate article, Soderbergh’s  visual stylization is at it’s best here. He just experiments with everything, dull monochromes, dusty browns, hand held camera shots for a more documentary feel,  flashy shots.

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We in the legal drug business, and I  mean Merck, Pfizer, the rest of my  very powerful clients, realize this  isn’t a war with a traditional winner   and loser, but an organism at war   with itself, whose weapons of mass  destruction happen to be intoxicants.

Traffic is more than just a visual and technical feast however, it is not just the way Soderbergh seamlessly intercuts from one storyline to another, it is also the way the characters are fleshed out in the movie.  Some superb writing by Stephen Gaghan, who incidentally would go on to direct another multiple storyline epic, Syriana, keeps the drama riveting, as you go along with the characters.  When you are making a movie with such a vast scope, there is every chance of cramming in too many characters, who ultimately do not add to the overall experience. It is full credit due to Gaghan, that it is not just the main characters,  even the supporting acts are well fleshed out.  Javier’s partner  Manolo Sanchez(Jacob Vargas)  or Gordon’s  partner Ray Castro(Luis Guzman)  are as vital to the storyline, as is Dennis Quaid as the slimy lawyer  Arnie Metzger, who seeks to take advantage of  Helena’s distress,  or  Eduardo Ruiz( Miguel Ferrer), the drug dealer, who agrees to testify against Ayala. The movie also shows the perspectives of  various interests  on the War on Drugs, right from the Big Pharma representative, who feels that the war is pointless, and that tobacco, alcohol actually kill more persons, compared to cocaine, to the economist, who looks at the issue in strictly market terms, stating that all this is going to achieve, is increase the business of the traffickers. Basically the fact  that it is a losing war, is  emphasized throughout the movie.  There are too many interests at work, who would like to see it fail, be it the Pharma industry or the economist lobbies or the numerous drug dealers. It is a fact that  Robert’s predecessor, Gen.Ralph Landry( James Brolin) wryly acknowledges, when he hands over the charge.

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That is is a losing war is apparent to  Robert, when he finds out that, he has to deal with his own daughter.  Caroline does not seem to be the kind who would fall to drugs, she is intelligent, an active student, comes from a well to do family, her parents are not divorced,  in fact there seems to be no logical reason for her to become a junkie. But the fact that  she does not just become a junkie, but goes to the extent of  sleeping around with seedy drug dealers,  prostituting herself for the next fix. The scenes which show Caroline’s descent into the drug induced hazes  are well shot, with the bluish monochromatic color adding to the bleakness.  Caroline becoming a junkie is however more of  Robert’s failure, as he finds himself totally helpless in dealing with the situation.  His wife, feels that this is a phasing phase, she had earlier experimented with drugs herself, and shows a bit more empathy towards her daughter.  In a way Robert, feels a loner at home,  with both his wife and his daughter, blaming him for the situation. But why exactly did Caroline turn to drugs?  Was it just for having a high?  Or was it a way of getting back on her father for neglect? We will never really know, as Soderbergh, leaves it to us to figure out.But personally I felt the story line dealing with Robert and his junkie daughter, was the weak link in Traffic. The scenes showing the drug addiction are pretty much rushed through, you really do not feel much empathy, unlike in Requiem for a Dream, that left you totally gutted out. Also the ending parts of the story, go into standard Hollywood territory, with Soderbergh, trying to rush it up, though to his credit, he does not go really overboard.

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The best part of  Traffic I felt was the storyline set in Mexico, which in many ways, showcased the War on Drugs, from different angles.  Looking at the viewpoint of Javier, the footsoldier here, fighting a long and dreary war, this part of the movie shows the frustration faced by such men. Of people like General Arturo Salazar( Tomas Milian), who hijacks the War on Drugs for his own selfish, opportunist purposes. Where people like Javier do all the hard work of tracking and capturing the criminals, men like Salazar hijack it for their own purposes, being used as a pawn, by powerful, vested interests.  Javier, feels that people get into drugs, due to lack of opportunities for recreation or work. He speaks from his own experience, hailing from a poor background, his parents had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they could not afford to fix the gas heater. His working class background, has made Javier much more street smart, enabling him to tackle the gangsters in his own way.  There is no other choice consider the war against Drugs in Mexico is much more dirtier, much more messy and much more brutal. But that brutality is considered normal there,  as in the scene, where a hitman for the Tijuana cartel Francisco Flores( Clifton Collins Jr) is being tortured, and the other men around laugh it off as just another day. The torture scene is quite gruesome, but what shocks more is the apparent nonchalance, of the men around, who do not seem to be shocked by it.

Salazar’s  way of combating crime, are pretty much different, though he pretends that he is concerned about the corruption and brutality of his officers, he is as much part of it. In fact much more dangerous, unlike the thuggish cops and soldiers, Salazar is also manipulative.  As in the way he mentally manipulates Francisco into revealing the vital information, pretending to be concerned about him, pretending to be shocked at his torture.  In reality Salazar cares for no one but himself and his own selfish interests. This is a fact that is known to both Javier and Manolo, the former, prefers to keep quiet about it, knowing it is futile, the latter however can’t and pays a heavy price.  One more interesting scene is the meeting between Salazar and Robert, in a way it also shows up the differences in approach, between Mexico and US. When Robert asks him what does he propose to do with the addicts, Salazar dismissively states “Addicts overdose, and then there is one less to worry about”.  Salazar simply sees the addicts as a menace, who have to be stamped out, rehabilitation is the last thing on his mind. In reality, Salazar is as much as a thuggish lout, as the guy who was torturing Francisco, he just hides it under a smooth, deceptive manner.

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In Mexico law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity, this is not so true for the USA.Using regression analysis we made a     study of the customs lanes at the border and calculated the odds of a search.  The odds are not high, and we found variables that reduce the odds.  We hire drivers with nothing to lose.  Then we throw a lot of     product at the problem.  Some get stopped.  Enough get through.  It’s not difficult.

The other footsoldiers in the story, Gordon and Castro, are the undercover DEA agents,  tracking down the supply chain in San Diego, men who spend most of their time, eavesdropping, tracking calls, and surveillance of suspects.  They really are not too well paid, most of them hanging out in old, seedy hotels. As Gordon wryly observes “When the DEA gets into the narcotics business, we will stay at the 4 Seasons”.  Soderbergh depicts the bonding between Gordon and Castro, well, the latter providing a bit of a comic relief, with his quips and quotes.  Unlike the Javier-Manolo story, we really do not have much idea about either Gordon or Castro’s background, except that they are cops. The shoot out scene with Gordon and Castro at Ruiz’s office is well shot, depicting the total chaos and confusion, as the DEA and Feds both competing with each other to nab the accused. It is however Gordon who does the real hard work, and grabs Ruiz, who in turn leads them to the big fish, Carlos.  Both Gordon and Castro, have a thankless task, spending long hours on tracking and surveillance, trying to make sense of what they are speak. They however relieve that boredom, cracking jokes at each other, making wisecracks be it on Maradonna or “Rich,white people”.  Also liked the interrogation scene between Gordon and Ruiz, where the latter gives vital information on the drug business, how the consignment crosses the border and the corruption involved at all levels.

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Helena on the other hand, seemingly ditzy and dumb, at the start actually turns out to be the smartest of the lot. Carlos arrest has shaken up her cozy, little, rich, San Diego world. She makes no bones about the fact that she married him for the money, for the socialite life, and everything seems nice and pretty, until Carlos is arrested. Her world is turned upside down, in fact she was not even aware of  Carlos real business. Add to it, the social ostracism by neighbors,  members of her club, the fact that they do not have the money to pay, with all funds frozen and her son getting threats. It would have driven any one else nuts, but Helena, turns out to be much more manipulative and smarter. She uses her situation well, feigning helplesness to manipulate just about everybody, be it Gordon and Castro,when she asks them for help, or her rather slimy defence lawyer Arnie Metzger(Dennis Quaid).  Arnie is the typical opportunist, who sees Carlos arrest as an opportunity to encash on and need be, get closer to Helena too. With his rather glib talk, and smooth demeanor, he feels that he is indeed impressing Helena, cashing in on her vulnerability. And when he does realize that he was the one being manipulated, it is a  bit too late.

Traffic works not just because of it’s  depiction of the drug trade and war on drugs, it is also a large part due to the characters and the relationships shown between them. Be it  the bonding between Gordon and Castro, or  Javier and Manolo, or the strained relationship Robert has with his daughter,  or the way Helena fights back to survive for the sake of her son,  Soderbergh, brings the human touch, at every level.  The movie is also helped by some great performances from an ensemble cast, my personal favorite though being  Benicio Del Toro, as Javier, always rated him as a brilliant actor, and he shows it in this movie, with a performance that deservedly won a Best Supporting Oscar.  For all her drop dead gorgeous looks, somehow never really took Catherine Zeta Jones seriously as an actor, but hers is the second best performance in the movie, as the seemingly vulnerable Helena, who turns out to be the most manipulative of the lot. Her real life husband Michael Douglas, is good as always in the role of Robert Wakefield, loved him in the scenes, where he is searching for his daughter.  Another Soderbergh regular, Don Cheadle, once again delivers as the undercover agent, Gordon.  The supporting cast of Dennis Quaid, Amy Irving, Erika Christensen do well too. To conclude I felt Traffic was the movie that deserved the Oscar over Gladiator, it is by far Soderbergh’s best movie ever.

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