ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE: BEST PICTURE
The stories of several drug dealers, drug addicts, and anti-drug officials are interwoven to present a picture of current battlefield conditions in the War on Drugs. [ Traffic credits: Dir: Steven Soderbergh/ Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones / 147min/ Drama/ Legalize Drugs]
What this film makes most clear is that the War on Drugs is a war, a civil war, with real casualties, real prisoners, that spreads well beyond the mark of its originating participants to touch even the lives of those who seem most removed from it.
Told through a literary collage of four separate stories, it relates the experiences of a variety of representative participants in the War: DEA agents, Mexican police, a U.S. government drug czar and his family, and a wealthy drug-dealer and his wife. They are all involved, one way or another, with transporting or interdicting the transportation of drugs across the Mexican border, and by the end all are casualties. One of the DEA agents is killed; one of the Mexican police is killed; the drug czar’s daughter is addicted; the czar resigns; and the drug-dealer and his wife are headed for prison.
No, Traffic is not an uplifting film, but it is an honest one. The War’s defeated–dead policemen, middle-class addicts, and a multitude of prisoners–are as real as today’s headlines. The principal strength of this story is that it faithfully communicates the complexity of the situation. There are no cardboard characters of good or evil here, just ordinary, sometimes flawed, people, in a situation unforgiving of flaws. It is the situation, that is, the War on Drugs, that is the root evil. Several mini-speeches woven into the dialogue state this explicitly. The film does give a nod to the quixotic heroics of the anti-drug agents (apparently much appreciated by the DEA), but the overall message is nonetheless an unmistakable indictment of current drug policy.
Among other topics, the film touches upon: asset seizure, the ease with which young people can get drugs despite vigorous enforcement, the rampant police corruption that the War stimulates, and the endless, horrible violence (including torture) that desperate participants in the War engage in. No, this film is not for the kiddies.
All this is told in a minimalist style. Although the film employs some big stars–Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among others–none of them steal the show. Nor do special effects take center stage. Indeed, much of the footage was shot using nothing more than a lowly hand-camera, by director Soderbergh himself. Instead, the focus is unrelentingly on the drug trade itself and the war against it, as it was for the British miniseries, Traffik, on which this film is based.
I wouldn’t say that Traffic is exactly the “great” one its numerous awards and nominations might suggest. But it is an important film, because it’s one of the first to make clear that the participants in the drug trade–the pitied junkie, the greedy drug dealer, the dead and/or corrupt cop–are not “them.” They are often us and those we love. As the drug czar says near the end, in explanation of his final decision to abandon the War on Drugs, “How [can] you wage war on your own family?”