Dir: Steven Soderbergh. US. 2000. 147 mins.
Prod cos: Bedford Falls. US dist: USA Films. Int'l sales: Initial Entertainment Group (+ 1 310 315 1722). Exec prods: Richard Solomon, Mike Newell & Cameron Jones, Graham King & Andreas Klein. Prods: Edward Zwick, Marshall Hersovitz, Laura Bickford. Scr: Stephen Gaghan, based on the TV series Traffik created by Simon Moore, originally produced by Carnival Films for Channel Four Television. DoP: Peter Andrews (aka Steven Soderbergh). Prod des: Philip Messina. Ed: Stephen Mirrione. Mus: Cliff Martinez. Main cast: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Bauer, Erika Christensen, Clifton Collins Jr, Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Tomas Milian, Albert Finney, Salma Hayek, Benjamin Bratt, James Brolin.
Steven Soderbergh said recently that Erin Brockovich had taught him to treat a serious theme in an entertaining way, and with Traffic he has taken that lesson one step further. Reminiscent of the sophisticated adult films made by Coppola, Scorsese, Altman and others in the 70s, Traffic is an expertly made, utterly engrossing look at the world of drug trafficking and drug abuse based roughly on the 1989 Channel Four TV series but relocated to Mexico and the United States.
Soderbergh also acted as director of photography and hand-held camera-operator on the film (he uses the pseudonym Peter Andrews), lending an air of realism and detachment to the proceedings which is as disquieting as its subject matter. USA Films' domestic ad campaign uses the tag line No One Gets Away Clean, and so Soderbergh lets us see in the trio of inter-connected stories masterfully woven together by writer Stephen Gaghan. Nobody is left untainted by this murky world, whether it be the kingpins who sell illegal drugs or the politicians who fight their dissemination.
A thrilling slice of cinema, Traffic has already been feted by the National Board Of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. Golden Globe and Oscar nominations will doubtless follow. As for its box office performance, many in Hollywood have called it a specialised or arthouse film, but if audiences across the globe flocked to The Godfather films or All The President's Men in the 70s, there is no reason why they shouldn't do the same thirty years later with Traffic. International distributors who bought the film from financier IEG won't be unhappy.
The film starts on the Mexican border with policeman Benicio Del Toro working faithfully under General Salazar in the war against the drug cartels. Del Toro gradually discovers, however, that he is being used as a pawn in the drug war and struggles whether to tell what he knows to the US authorities.
Meanwhile in San Diego undercover agents Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are working to help the US government build its case against one of the cartels and persuade a mid-level trafficker (Miguel Ferrer) to testify against drug baron Steven Bauer. Bauer's wife (Zeta-Jones) is stunned by the news but quickly gets back on her feet to try and protect her family and her lifestyle.
On a national level, Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is being groomed by the president as the new anti-drug czar by the president but he and his wife (Irving) slowly discover that their own daughter (Christensen) has become an addict and Wakefield begins to question his new role.
There are flaws. The ending is a fizzle rather than a bang and certain plot machinations - such as the transformation of Zeta-Jones' character - are clumsily handled. But these are minor quibbles in a major achievement. The cast is an ensemble in the purest sense. All are excellent. If any are to be singled out, they are del Toro and Zeta-Jones, the latter decidedly unglamorous as a woman fighting fiercely to stay afloat - whatever it takes.