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Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘Traffic’s’ complexities are the War on Drugs’ wake-up call

Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘Traffic’s’ complexities are the War on Drugs’ wake-up call

Traffic poster Soderbergh month

Written by Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
USA, 2000

In his review of King of the Hill, Zach Lewis skewers Steven Soderbergh’s fascination with political structures throughout the director’s filmography and reading the 1993 film’s Depression-era survivalism as a “residual effect of those outside any political sphere.” Seven years after King of the Hill, Soderbergh’s fixation on politics would reach its peak in Traffic, an endlessly complex examination of America’s War on Drugs.

Traffic‘s genesis is simple enough, beginning with a pair of cops. Having run down a Mexican drug courier mid-transport, officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner find their score short-lived when high-ranking General Salazar (Tomas Milian) pulls rank and takes over the drug bust. Here, the simplicity of Traffic dissipates with the monochrome yellows of the Tijuana desert. Though Rodriguez’s would-be arrest implies it, smuggling cocaine from Mexico to the States doesn’t come down to one man. That’s a notion newly-appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) half-understands. As the head of Washington, D.C.’s National Drug Control Policy Office, Wakefield intends to make an example of one mid-level coke dealer (Miguel Ferrer) in the hopes that it will encourage suppliers to think twice about their shipments. But Ferrer has plans of his own, negotiating an immunity deal in exchange for giving up his superior, San Diego drug king Carlos Ayala (Steve Bauer). Two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) and their invasive investigation of Ayala’s life disrupts the cozy San Diego suburbia of his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Helena hires a hitman, the hitman whacks key players, and so on. The ensuing swirl of connections and relations is the central crux of Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, here adapting the 1989 British serial Traffik: a linear conception of the drug trafficking business ignores the dozens of extraneous factors beyond a supply and demand dichotomy.

A more fitting representation is that of a spider web, each strand a separate player in the game. Vibrations reverberate from one strand to the next, inducing change, adaptation, and if that vibration’s violent enough, breakage. At first, Wakefield’s daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) recreationally indulges in the occasional hit of coke for after-school discussions with a fresh-faced Topher Grace. Over time, however, Caroline graduates from snorting cocaine to free-basing it to bumping up to heroin altogether, eventually exchanging sex with dealers and strangers alike for the stuff. Caroline’s wild spiral sends her stern father on a frantic city-wide search, one that leads to a tense confrontation with a dealer who meets Wakefield’s demands with laughs and the muzzle of a gun. Big-time dealers like Ayala are one thing; how does one throw the book at their own daughter? As General Salazar suggests, overdosing addicts are the strands that come to “eliminate” themselves, and Soderbergh is keen to linger on Douglas’ face. It’s a moment of clarity, of panic for his loved ones. Most importantly, it’s a moment of realization that the current model isn’t working.

Traffic‘s message is most profound in these domestic strands because while criminals can be caught, and as General Salazar proves, leaders can be bought, things get scary when the War on Drugs spills into family life. As a California drug king’s trophy wife, Helena seems demure and well-meaning. She delivers fresh lemonade to the watchful agents parked outside of her mansion and appropriately panics at the police station. But she also enlists the services of an assassin (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and negotiates a more lucrative drug agreement in her husband’s absence. Her transformation into behind-the-scenes puppet master is never made clear, and Soderbergh and Zeta-Jones fail to find a balance between character change and inherent capability; strangely enough, it’s akin to Soderbergh’s handling of Zeta-Jones’ character in this year’s Side Effects. Still, in disrupting the codes of the nuclear family model, Ayala’s kingpin becomes a bizarro breed of breadwinner just as Helena serves as his cunning mastermind, and while she’s the site of the film’s one problem characterization, her opacity is par for the course.

Steven Soderbergh month Traffic baseball final scene

Soderbergh never defines the opacity of criminality, law, and family in the War on Drugs, but he does codify pieces via chromatic photography, affixing rich color filters to his Panavision Millennium XL. Wakefield’s exploits in D.C. take on a steely, blue while Rodriguez’s goings-on across the border are stained a sour yellow, as if the desert sands have impossibly evaporated into Tijuana’s atmosphere. Soderbergh’s split colors retain a regional resonance as he flits about his crime epic, even if each frame’s heightened contrasts and grains muddy the potential for a cleanly split narrative — geographic or otherwise.

In continuing one’s understanding of Soderbergh’s political structures, Traffic makes a case for the director’s obsession with structures writ large. Drug enforcement’s architecture crumbles beneath youth addiction. The wheels of the judicial system are easily greased through the power of dollars and pesos. Conceptions of family values are all but eroded at the dismissal of Ayala’s trial, as Soderbergh disorients the viewer with a family openly embracing and cheering over the murder of a key witness. In his request to bring electricity to his neighborhood, Rodriguez suggests positive cultural structures may eliminate the temptation of youth to drift toward crime and gangs, that organized sports might be enough to keep those strands from breaking. But as he sits and watches a baseball game under the lights, Rodriguez also makes it clear that against all else, baseball carries a now too rare kind of simplicity for him.

As a show of support for Caroline, Wakefield foregoes broad, sweeping speeches at his daughter’s rehabilitation ceremony. It’s a tacit admission of the War on Drug’s marked failures, one that resonates in current events 13 years later. “We’re here to listen.”

— David Klein

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