Traffic: Teeming Mural of a War Fought and Lost

  Traffic: Teeming Mural of a War Fought and Lost

Posted by FoM on December 27, 2000 at 10:32:27 PT
By Stephen Holden 
Source: New York Times 

Steven Soderbergh's great, despairing squall of a film, "Traffic," may be the first Hollywood movie since Robert Altman's "Nashville" to infuse epic cinematic form with jittery new rhythms and a fresh, acid- washed palette.The agitated pulse of the hand-held camerawork (by the director working under a pseudonym) that roughly elbows its way into the center of the action is perfectly suited to the film's hard-boiled subject, America's losing war on drugs. 
The color scheme sandwiches a few lush patches between sequences filmed in two hues — an icy blue and a sun-baked yellow-orange — that are as visually discordant as the forces doing battle.Where Mr. Altman's masterpiece portrayed American culture as a jostling, twangy carnival of honky-tonk dreams, "Traffic" is a sprawling multicultural jazz symphony of clashing voices sounding variations of the same nagging discontent. The performances (in English and Spanish), by an ensemble from which not a false note issues, have the clarity and force of pithy instrumental solos insistently piercing through a dense cacophony.The characters run the social gamut, from affluent United States government officials and wealthy drug lords on both sides of the United States border with Mexico and their fat-cat lawyers, to the foot soldiers doggedly toiling in a never-ending drug war.The most indelible performances belong to Benicio Del Toro as a burly, eagle-eyed Mexican state policeman of pluck and resourcefulness who has the street smarts to wriggle out of almost any squeeze; Michael Douglas, as a conservative Ohio Supreme Court Justice who is appointed the country's new drug czar, and Erika Christensen, as his sullen drug-addicted teenage daughter. Catherine Zeta-Jones is also riveting as a wealthy, ruthless, Southern California matron who is unaware that her husband is a high-level drug smuggler until he is dragged out of their house by federal agents.The movie, which jumps around from Tijuana to Cincinnati to Washington to San Diego, from a posh Ohio suburb to the inner city to the Mexican desert to the White House itself, offers a coolly scathing overview of the multibillion-dollar drug trade and the largely futile war being waged against it.But as despairing as it is, "Traffic" is not cynical. It gives its isolated heroes in the trenches their due. One of these is Javier Rodriguez (Mr. Del Toro), a wily, good-hearted Mexican policeman who conspires with the Drug Enforcement Administration to bring down his own boss (Tomas Milian), a corrupt Mexican general who uses torture to get his way. Other heroes include a pair of D.E.A. undercover agents, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), who spend half their lives in cramped vans engaged in surveillance."Traffic" is an updated, Americanized version of a 1989 British television mini-series, "Traffik," that followed the drug trade from Pakistan to Britain. From an ambiguous, paranoically-charged opening desert sequence (reminiscent of the crop- dusting scene in "North by Northwest"), in which Javier and his partner, Manolo (Jacob Vargas), surrender a newly captured truckload of cocaine to the corrupt general, to a late scene in which an American agent risks his life to plant a bug in a dealer's mansion, "Traffic" is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff.What these stories add up to is something grander and deeper than a virtuosic adventure film. "Traffic" is a tragic cinematic mural of a war being fought and lost. That failure, the movie suggests, has a lot to do with greed and economic inequity (third world drug cartels have endless financial resources to fight back). But the ultimate culprit, the movie implies, is human nature. Waging a war against drugs isn't just a matter of combating corruption but of eradicating the basic human desire to "take the edge off," as Mr. Douglas's character, Robert Wakefield, says in defense of his nightly drink of Scotch. "Otherwise, I'd be dying of boredom," he adds."Traffic" is no friend of the government. When Wakefield returns from Washington, where he has been briefed by the president's chief of staff (Albert Finney) and other major Beltway players in the war, he describes the experience to his wife, Barbara (Amy Irving), and daughter, Caroline (Ms. Christensen), as like being "in Calcutta, surrounded by beggars wearing $1,500 suits who don't say `please' and `thank you.' "While Wakefield is exploring this new turf, Caroline is rapidly succumbing to crack addiction under the tutelage of her cynical boyfriend, Seth (Topher Grace), her classmate at the exclusive Cincinnati Country Day School and as a scary a contemporary teenager as you're likely find in a recent movie. A high achiever who is sullen and angry beneath her preppy glass, Caroline quickly plummets to the bottom. Early scenes of her stoned friends sprawled around a fancy living room, drinking, sniffing cocaine and mumbling fuzzily about their discontents offer a devastating vision of youthful suburban ennui.The movie does not shy away from portraying the pleasure of drugs, and Caroline's initiation into free-base cocaine by Seth is a voluptuous rush. Her head rolls back, and tears of joy trickle from her eyes as Seth repeats in a soothing voice, "You see? You see?" before making love to her. From that moment, Caroline is hooked, and she becomes a glazed- eyed baby-faced demon whose precipitous fall lands her in a seedy hotel under the thumb of the drug- dealing pimp who introduced her to heroin. As Wakefield tries desperately to wrest her from the gutter, this strand of the movie threatens to turn into a Charles Bronson-like vigilante drama. But the acting is so powerful that the scenes have documentary crediblity.A parallel strain of the demonic runs through the story of Helena Ayala (Ms. Zeta-Jones), whose comfortable world begins falling apart the moment her drug-dealing husband, Carlos (Steven Bauer), is arrested. Six months pregnant and the mother of a young son, she finds herself a social outcast, her finances frozen, her son's life threatened by Carlos's creditors. "I want my old life back," she declares furiously to her husband over a prison telephone. Then, with coldblooded determination, she sets about getting it back by any means necessary.Her key to getting it back lies in forestalling the testimony of Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a midlevel drug dealer busted by Montel and Ray who is being held in protective custody as the key witness in Carlos's trial. A harsh realist who knows his chances of survival aren't great, Eduardo bitterly scoffs at his captors for "knowing the futility of what you're doing and doing it anyway," and his words resound through the movie. The film's most exciting scenes demonstrate the efficiency of the drug cartels at penetrating the most heavily guarded inner sanctum.If "Traffic" illustrates how the underfunded, red-tape-bound good guys are no match against the enemy's superior resources, what makes the film more than a powerful thriller is its unflinching contemplation of human frailty. From Helena's take-no-prisoners schemes to stay rich, to a hired assassin tracked down in a gay bar and seduced into a trap, to Carlos's two-faced lawyer (Dennis Quaid), who is tempted to steal from his boss while he is behind bars, the film understands the sheer, brutal force of human desire.A theme that percolates throughout Stephen Gaghan's screenplay is a reflection on addiction and dependence. From Wakefield's nightly Scotch, to the two glasses of red wine Helena recommends to her friends over lunch at a fancy La Jolla restaurant, to Ray's chain smoking, to the druggy past of Wakefield's wife (was it experimentation or something more?), "Traffic" poses unanswerable questions about selfmedication, pleasure, dependency and addiction. One character, who early in the movie invokes the slogan "In vino veritas" while plying a paid assassin with red wine to coax information out of him, later commits suicide by injecting heroin.In the end, Wakefield, exhausted and demoralized after all he has been through, delivers the White House address he's been instructed to prepare in a weary, halfhearted voice, mumbling words like "courage," "perseverance" and "new ideas" before announcing a new "10- point plan." But as we've been shown, there are no new ideas. Wakefield's speech ring hollow until the moment he pauses and wonders out loud, How can you wage a war against your own family?That family, "Traffic" implies, is not just his own drug-addicted daughter but also a culture devoted to instant gratification and quick-fix pain relief. The drugs, after all, don't flow out from the United States into the third world, they flow in. For this is a culture in which, at the end of the day, millions of people, just like Wakefield, find themselves "dying of boredom.""Traffic" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has scenes of violence (including torture), sexual situations and the preparation of free-base cocaine and drug injection. TRAFFICDirected by Steven Soderbergh; written by Stephen Gaghan, based on "Traffik" created by Simon Moore, originally produced by Carnival Films for Channel 4 Television (Britain); director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Philip Messina; produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford; released by USA Films. Running time: 147 minutes. This film is rated R. WITH: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Benicio Del Toro (Javier Rodriguez), Luis Guzman (Ray Castro), Dennis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Steven Bauer (Carlos Ayala), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Clifton Collins Jr. (Francisco Flores), Miguel Ferrer (Eduardo Ruiz), Topher Grace (Seth Abrahms), Amy Irving (Barbara Wakefield), Tomas Milian (General Arturo Salazar), Marisol Padilla Sanchez (Ana Sanchez), Jacob Vargas (Manolo Sanchez) and Albert Finney (Chief of Staff). Complete Title: 'Traffic': Teeming Mural of a War Fought and LostSource: New York Times (NY) Author: Stephen HoldenPublished: December 27, 2000Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 Fax: (212) 556-3622 Contact: letters Website: Forum: Related Articles & Web Site:Traffic Official Site - Salon Magazine Review Kicks The Habit 

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Comment #1 posted by MikeEEEEE on December 27, 2000 at 19:11:01 PT

Liberation comes soon.
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