Thrill Ride'
invites us to play in 'Traffic'
By Ellison Walcott

Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones get caught in Traffic

Steven Soderbergh is proving to be both one of the most versatile and consistent directors of the new millennium. With Traffic, his second film in less than a year, he has crafted an ambitious tour de force, which entertains while maintaining an artistic integrity. Such duality is the very hallmark of Oscar buzz (it platformed in New York and L.A. in December to qualify for Oscar consideration, and has already received five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture).

Traffic propels the audience into the raw landscape of the current drug culture, which is both panoramic and detailed. The illumination of the major players in the drug trafficking world is revealed through four simultaneous storylines; government officials (corrupt and uncorrupt), traffickers on both sides of the Mexican/American border, ardent law officers, and naive drug abusers are only a smattering of the residents that inhabit this conflicted panorama. The quartet of narratives is drawn carefully, so that over the course of 2 + hours, the characters are forced to make difficult moral choices that bring about an array of results.

Soderbergh draws both pace and authenticity from a docudrama-style storytelling with hand held camera movement, a variety of film stocks and seamless editing, each of which pulls the viewer into a deep emotional engagement. The leitmotifs of color distinguish the four cities that serve as the backdrop for the principal storylines. The movie transports one between the grainy, romantic, sepia toned images of Tijuana, to the saturated blues and dispassionate clarity of the Cincinnati suburbs and its inner city; from the bold, lush greens and reds of nouveau riche San Diego to the even, somber and disconnected bureaucratic environs of the White House and the Washington beltway.

Michael Douglas's Robert Wakefield is a Cincinnati State Supreme Court Justice who is appointed as the nation's new drug czar. His first order of business is to grin and booze with the DC politarati. Senators Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer and others make cameo appearances and improvisationally fill him with the wisdom from their soapboxes.

In Tijuana, General Salazar, under the guise of Mexico's version of "drug czar," is actually a Juarez drug lord henchman who is trying to bring down the Tijuana cartel, his boss's primary competitor. He hires two local policemen, Javier and Manolo, to help him take it down. Benicio Del Toro, who portrays the beleaguered Javier, delivers a fantastic performance. The moral ambiguity of his lot and the Sisyphean nature of the choices set in front of him are subtly visible in each close up.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, DEA agents Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle are undercover, trying to capture the one witness who can help them nail a local drug distributor, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose beautiful, pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is clueless to her husband's nefarious involvement in the drug world. Not too long after the FBI arrest Ayala, an inner strength and desire to protect her home, family and lifestyle emerges in Helena to further cloud any evident moral absolutes.

Back in the upper-class burbs of Cincinnati, Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen), the teenage daughter of the newly selected drug czar is boozing and drugging it up with her friends. Slowly, but surely, she edges up the ladder from the recreational/ pedestrian class of drugs to a no-turning-back crack and heroine addiction. The depictions of her descent are crudely vivid and painful to watch.

Each story's trajectory compels characters to eventually make choices, which complete a transformation. Yet the battle wounds run deep, and are not easily healed.

The best performances belong to Christensen, Douglas and Del Toro. Christensen displays the thinly veneered depression which catalyzes drugs as a convenient crutch of emotional support. Douglas's middle-aged helplessness has never been more effective and plaintive. And Del Toro embodies the noble lone hero who wants nothing for himself, only an improvement in the standard of living for his people. Each character struggles with the ultimate lesser-of-several-evils options in front of them.

From the start of his film career with the debut of sex lies and videotape, Soderbergh's film topics always err on the side of complexity. His films push intellectual envelopes that leave the audience reflecting for several days after leaving the theatre. Last summer's Erin Brockovich tackled similar issues in its desire to reveal the humanity that is so often negated in illegal matters albeit from a far more amiable/feel-good point of view.

Traffic clearly defines a drug epidemic of immeasurable proportions; it does not purport to give answers but to inspire the audience to deeper contemplation about a war in a country we truly don't understand.