Where to begin? Well, first of all, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is the most breathtaking and ambitious tempest of a movie to come out of Hollywood in years.
Taking the oily tentacles of the drug-trade octopus as its subject, you would expect the film to be sober and elegiac. And it is. But there's also an urgency that snaps your neck back. You don't bow reverently to the film for having a social conscience, and Soderbergh isn't looking for a standing ovation, either. Traffic is thrillingly alive. From the first frame to the last, the director would rather engage you, startle you with the vastness of his canvas, and offer his extraordinary movie as an antidote to gutless filmmaking, easy solutions, and the usual high-minded Oscar-season mediocrity.
He tells three parallel stories about characters stumbling around a bloody front. There's the Mexican state trooper (Benicio Del Toro) who prowls the border between the United States and Mexico, sluggish and bored by the casual institutional corruption of the job; the Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) nominated by the president to the thankless job of the nation's drug czar; and the San Diego country club matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who, after her husband is dragged from their mansion by drug enforcement agents, becomes positively feral in her desire to hold onto her lifestyle.
Whether they realize it or not, high or low, each is a general, a grunt, or an innocent in the nation's futile war against drugs. Each is also surrounded by his or her own moons: friends, family, co-workers, investigators, lawyers.
Michael Douglas and Erika Christensen in a scene from Traffic.
Employed by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), Del Toro's cop slowly wakes from his moral slumber as the reverberations from his small role become clear - he's that classic one man who could make a difference. Douglas's Robert Wakefield is more na ve, but he's willing to learn, even if he's slow to grasp that his own teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) has moved from recreational drug use to full-blown heroin addiction. The irony is a bit much, but the forcefulness of the performances blow you past it.
My favorite characters are a couple of DEA agents, played by Soderbergh regulars Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, who are holed up for most of the movie in a surveillance van watching Zeta-Jones and her lawyer (Dennis Quaid). As a cornered drug dealer (Miguel Ferrer) tells them bluntly, summarizing the movie: They know the futility of what they're doing and yet they'll do it anyway, day after day, over and over.
Soderbergh provides a little overlapping of stories during his sprawling, nearly two-and-a-half hour epic, but eventually every life complements the next. He handles this like a man chasing his own movie, playing catch-up with the daily newspaper headlines. The film's frame jitters. Editing jumps. Colors wash out the screen or glare bright. Scenes slam into scenes. Sometimes Soderbergh lets a performance stretch, sometimes he breaks things off in mid-beat; sometimes the camera lingers and sometimes it plunges headlong into a room, then pulls out and gives us a long view of the chaos.
Indeed, Soderbergh himself handled the camera work, and what might have been a gimmick if he were, say, Oliver Stone, is perfect in this case. He throws himself into the action, and though the camera is handheld, you notice the immediacy, not the device.
He pushes his way through extras (including, in one memorable scene, a Georgetown crowd featuring real-life U.S. senators Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer) to get to his stars, nearly always using the set's only available light. Then in the processing room, he literally tweaks the film so the Mexican scenes reek with pale yellows and the Ohio scenes are coated by steely blues. Soderbergh squeezes more ideas into a few frames than an entire year's worth of other films. And despite the immensity of its subject, he never flinches or turns cynical - a few faceless heroes are all he as to offer in the way of hope.
Working from Steve Gaghan's loose adaptation of the 1989 British TV miniseries Traffik, Soderbergh begins with a gridlock of corruption and good intentions, and ends - builds to a crescendo, really - somewhere between surrender and optimism.
It's a brave, ambiguous way to wrap a big work like this.
Ultimately, what is most exciting about Traffic is not its politics but the film itself. Douglas's Wakefield asks his advisors to think outside the box for a moment and come up with fresh ideas, and the room is a tomb - nobody says a word. You might substitute modern Hollywood for that group. Not since the blistering 1970s movies of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman has a director sustained, film to film, the same level of entertainment and intelligence that Soderbergh has managed over the past two years - from 1998's Out to Sight to 1999's The Limey to last spring's Erin Brockovich. He's making cinematic jazz - inventive, fun, and accessible - and I can't wait to hear his next riff.