Sunday, September 27, 2015
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Traffic hasn't held up as well as it might have over the past 15 years, and one reason for that is a bit ironic: The movie was based on a British miniseries, and since the film's debut its central theme, the paralysis of politicians and police in trying to stop the drug trade, and its multiple-track storytelling have been handled more brilliantly by an American miniseries, The Wire (2002-08). It's even possible that the film demonstrates the limits faced by movies as opposed to long-form television in handling stories of complexity and sweep. (Imagine, for example, Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad stuffed into the confines of a two-or-three-hour movie.) Traffic still holds your interest, of course, thanks to some brilliant performances, especially the Oscar-winning one by Benicio Del Toro, as well as the ones by Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones. (It's also fun to spot Viola Davis making a solid impression in a tiny part as a social worker.) And Soderbergh's direction deservedly won the Oscar, along with Steven Gaghan's screenplay and Stephen Mirrione's film editing. I would, however, fault Gaghan for the sentimental and melodramatic resolution to the story centering on Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, the newly appointed czar of the War on Drugs: It stretches credulity to have Wakefield break down in the middle of his acceptance speech and abandon his post, and the scene in which Wakefield and his wife (Amy Irving) beamingly support their drug-addicted daughter (Erika Christensen) at a twelve-step-program meeting is pure schmaltz. The film also pulls its punches a bit where the wasteful War on Drugs crusade is concerned, even to the point of featuring cameos by real-life politicians William Weld (a Reagan-administration appointee who supervised the Drug Enforcement Administration) and Senators Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, and a surprisingly young-looking Harry Reid as themselves.