This is not a biopic of psychedelic rock band Traffic, but it does feature a lot of drug use.
Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic has the distinction of going up against another Soderbergh movie, Erin Brockovich, for the Best Picture Oscar in 2000. Both films lost to Gladiator, but Traffic did win Academy Awards for directing, editing and writing, as well as a Supporting Actor statue for Benicio del Toro. He would go on to appear in a more recent War on Drugs thriller, Sicario, alongside Josh Brolin; this one features his father, James Brolin. Traffic surpasses Sicario by engaging and grappling with a range of political arguments at a remarkably involved level.
By following various characters through three interconnected storylines, taking place in Mexico, San Diego and Washington, Traffic reveals the way the War on Drugs affects people at all levels of society, across borders; from Tijuana cops and drug dealers to Washington officials and teenage children. It’s lengthy at 2.5 hours, and the sprawling plot is at times confusing and at others clichéd. But Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay, based on the 1989 Channel 4 series Traffik, serves as a compelling critique of the War on Drugs, its failings and hypocrisies.
Traffic also sees Soderbergh wrangle an ensemble cast in a manner more grown-up than Ocean’s Eleven and more exciting than Contagion. Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas and Don Cheadle all excel in major roles, with solid support from Dennis Quaid, Erika Christensen and That ’70s Show‘s Topher Grace as a druggy student; a strange vision of Eric Foreman’s future.
Sodebergh, who also serves as cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, ramps up the immediacy of the action and tension of the drama with urgent, street-level camerawork. Together with the triangular plotting, colour-coded cinematography and extraordinary editing, this makes for a high-calibre thriller.
No spoilers, but Douglas’ final line, “We’re here to listen,” sends a strong message; a call for a drug policy of listening and treatment, instead of prohibition and punishment. Combined with Soderbergh’s virtuoso filmmaking, this political substance, if you’ll excuse the pun, further elevates Traffic. Get stuck in.