John BrownCatherine Zeta-JonesJacob VargasBenicio Del Toro
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Simon Moore, Stephen Gaghan
Keywords: Oscar-winning, gangster
Country: Germany, USA
Language: English, Spanish [Mexico subplot only]
Actor: Benicio Del Toro, Jacob Vargas, Tomas Milian, Jose Yenque, Michael O'Neill, Michael Douglas, Russell G. Jones, Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer, Corey Spears, Majandra Delfino, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, Alec Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, D.W. Moffett, James Brolin, Steven Bauer, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., James Pickens Jr., Peter Riegert, Elaine Kagan, John Slattery, Yul Vazquez, Jack Conley, Eddie Velez, Craig N. Chretien, John Brown, Joel Torres, Stephen J. Rose, Benjamin Bratt, Jsu Garcia, Rita Gomez, David Jensen
Format: 147 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 25 August 2010
Steven Soderbergh had a good 2000. He directed two Oscar-winning movies, this and Eric Brokovich, with this one taking Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The last of those winners, Benicio Del Toro, is also only the fifth actor ever to have won an Oscar for a role that's mostly in a foreign language.
I didn't know until just now, but Traffic is also a movie adaptation of Traffik, a six-part 1989 British TV series about the illegal drugs trade. It was produced by Channel 4 and it looked at drug producers in Pakistan, dealers in Germany and users in Britain. It sounds as if it was good too, winning BAFTAs and an International Emmy Award for best drama.
Anyway, by all accounts Soderbergh took this one seriously. It often feels almost like a documentary, both in the guerilla-style cinematography and in how far it's pushing the level of non-fiction. It never goes so far as to turn into talking heads, but occasionally it's not far off that. Some of the politicians you'll see in this film are real Republicans and Democrats, some of whom refused to work from a script. In addition there are scenes which weren't meant to be in the movie, like the one at the California-Tijuana border where Michael Douglas started asking Rudy M. Camacho about border trafficking. He wasn't acting. They were simply discussing the issues. Soderbergh started shooting with a hand-held camera in the hope that Camacho wouldn't say the words "Mr Douglas".
As for authenticity, the production crew got assistance from the D.E.A. and U.S. Customs in trying to portray the war on drugs as fully and accurately as possible. Both of those agencies corrected script inaccuracies, without trying to influence content. Furthermore large chunks of the script is based on real people and events, especially in Mexico. Thus the film has fictional equivalents of the Juarez Cartel and its head, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, plus his ally General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo. Meanwhile the Obregon brothers are based on the Arellano Felix brothers.
He also insisted that the Mexican characters speak Spanish. The studio didn't like that, although to be fair there was quite a lot about this film to scare a studio. Soderbergh's first cut was 190 minutes long.
Stylistically it's just as interesting. Soderbergh was trying to give the impression of "caught" footage and the film's wikipedia page has a sizeable list of films he studied in trying to achieve this. He says he was particularly inspired by Ken Loach's cinema verite style and talks of the space you need to maintain from the actors to keep that documentary feel, as opposed to toppling over into drama. It sounds really interesting, actually. I'm not going to quote it all here, but it's worth a look. Furthermore he's using different visual palettes for the different storylines, often rough-looking and nearly monochrome. Mexico is shot strobe-like with a tobacco filter, making it look harsh and sepia. Michael Douglas's story has a tungsten filter, making it cold and blue. This obviously makes the film look rougher and hence more real, but it's also a useful crutch to help us distinguish all these different stories in our heads.
In summary, it's an important film. It's hard to call it the best film of the year because it feels like a category error to compare it with regular drama. It's a bigger story than that. It's a bit like channel-surfing. It's showing all these different pictures of the war on drugs, taking us along almost the whole supply chain from Mexico to the inside of spoiled rich kids' noses. There's enough plain speaking to discomfit the full spectrum of preconceived opinions. Liberals and conservatives are both made to look stupid. One of the film's few moments of comedy comes when Michael Douglas's drug tsar thinks he's found a kindred soul in General Arturo Salazar, while their comparison of drugs and alcohol invites comparison with Prohibition in the 1920s. The industry's economics are portrayed with frightening clarity.
There's also a subtle touch in one reporter's leading question. "You've got a daughter. Why is it important to get a handle on the drug problem?" Obviously the phrasing's hilarious, but think back afterwards and you'll realise it was downright prophetic.
It's not a showbizzy cast, but that's all to the good. Del Toro earns his Oscar, while there's an odd synergy from the presence of both Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones. They're never on-screen together, but even so these days they're such a famous couple that it helps bind the movie together in an odd synergistic way. They were engaged before filming began and they married soon afterwards. I also found it kind of fun to have D-FENS from Falling Down as the movie's judicial loose cannon. There are more obvious acting heavyweights that one could have cast in his role, but for some reason I love their choice of Douglas. He's not glossy, if you know what I mean.
Scariest are the Mexican scenes, though. There's nothing particularly startling in the American plot threads, unpleasant though they are, but you really won't want to get on the wrong side of these Mexicans. Even the good guys. Maybe especially the good guys.
This is one of those movies that's more than just a movie. It feels bigger than that. Apart from anything else, it's educational. I learned some frightening facts here and I'm very glad I saw this film, albeit in a different way from usual. In fairness there was one moment that felt slightly sentimental to me... but on reflection, I bet that was just as authentic as everything else and my reaction says more about me than it does about Soderbergh's film. Whatever your opinions might be on the criminalisation of drugs and how we should be tackling the international trade in them, it's worth watching this film.