Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Miguel Ferrer
Rated R for Pervasive Drug Content. Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality
We all like to believe that the "War on Drugs" occurs far away from us. In another world or something. It's just some oblique story that runs daily on the news; close enough to relate to but far enough away that there's no fear of being touched by it. It helps us sleep at night. Of course, it's a total lie, and that realization is at the heart of "Traffic."
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of "Traffic" is that, for all the evil and destruction that drugs represent, and how well we know the carnage they cause, they are omnipresent in every part of society. Whether you're the daughter of the nation's drug czar or a cop in Tijuana, drugs are oh so easy to get if you have the desire. Or simply the curiosity. And everyone knows the story about curiosity and the cat...
The film, based on a British miniseries, tells three stories simultaneously, with another one or two thrown in for seasoning First is that of Robert Wakefield (Douglas), the nation's new drug czar. He wants to get into the trenches, so to speak, of the war on drugs and find a new avenue of attack. However, this blinds him to his daughter Caroline's (Christensen) growing dependence on heroin. The second story is that of Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), the pampered wife of Carlos (Steven Bauer), a wealthy, upstanding businessman. But when he's hauled off to jail, she has to find a way to stay alive amid the threats and debts swirling around her. Finally, there's Javier Rodriguez (del Toro), who may be the only honest cop in Tijuana. But in this world, honesty and idealism are liabilities.
What's especially stunning about this movie is how much material is covered. There are at least five central characters (depending on how you define the term), each being surrounded by their own supporting characters. This is a true ensemble effort; plenty of big names and important roles, but no one steals the movie. There simply isn't time. Credit must go to the strong writing by Stephen Gaghan, directing by Steven Sodebergh, and editing by Stephen Mirrione. All three won Oscars for their work, and they deserve them. They have managed to do the impossible: tell an ensemble story with a sense of balance and no loss in character development or pacing. This is one movie that earns every minute of its running time.
It also helps to have a cast with this depth of talent. All recognize the timeliness and relevance of the subject matter and no one phones it in. The cast reads like a movie lover's dream: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro (in an Oscar-winning performance), Catherine Zeta-Jones, Erika Christensen, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman (providing the slim comic relief), Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr, Miguel Ferrer and Topher Grace. And that's not all. In smaller roles you have the likes of James Brolin, Albert Finney, John Slattery, Viola Davis, and Salma Hayek. Casts don't get much better than that. Of them, Michael Douglas and Erika Christensen stick out in my mind the most. Douglas plays the everyman here, and while it's not as flashy as Gordon Gekko, it's one of his best performances. Douglas plays the role straight without flash or pizzazz, and therein lies its power. He may be the drug czar, but above all he's a father who is losing his daughter to drugs. Erika Christensen is excellent as his daughter; a curious teen whose curiosity sends her down a dark road into addiction. From shy bookworm to drug-addicted whore, she doesn't miss a beat. Why the Academy overlooked her, I'll never know.
One thing I liked about the movie is how well it buries the background information in the dialogue. For example, when Wakefield is making the office trips to formulate his plan, he asks the people on the ground about the situation. Not only does this develop his character, but it tells us the reality of the drug world and the situation that the characters live in. There's no sense that the characters are setting the stage or spouting what should be narration. These conversations feel authentic.
The MPAA gave this film an R rating for, and I quote, "Pervasive Drug Content, Strong Language, Violence and Some Sexuality." In fact, USA Films feared that Sodebergh's second cut would receive the dreaded NC-17 rating (in an uncharacteristically smart move for the MPAA, it didn't demand any cuts). At first glance, it makes sense. There's a lot of rough stuff in this movie, but it serves a purpose. It's about as anti-drug as you can get. It's a smart movie; it understand why drugs are so seductive to the curious and the dangers that they come with. If that's not appropriate for a teenager, I don't know what is.
While not as brutal to watch as "Once Were Warriors," another film about substance abuse and its related horrors, it's still a very strong film. Besides, it's a different kind of film. There are some weaknesses in the scenes set in Tijuana, but all in all I highly encourage you to see this film.