‘Traffic’ (2000) is one of those films that was way ahead of its’ time when it was first released over a decade and a half ago. It is a film that makes you think deeply hours or even days after you first watch it. ‘Traffic’ should be viewed more than once to really understand all of the nuances and subtleties embedded in its’ individual stories underneath its’ overarching central themes.
When compared to most other movies of the crime drama genre, ‘Traffic’ gained a lot of particular praise for the way its’ director and screenwriter were able to successfully weave multiple plotlines, characters, and settings together that slightly overlap with each other but are seamless enough as to not overburden the viewer with unrealistic connections.
‘Traffic’ is a movie that respects the intelligence of its’ audience and isn’t afraid to tackle the controversial topic of the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s quite surprising when you think about how this movie was released back in 2000, but is still just as relevant and timely of an issue today as it was back when it was first released to the public. When ‘Traffic’ came out, it gained universal recognition and critical acclaim, and after viewing it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it was so noteworthy.
Steven Soderbergh directed ‘Traffic’, and Stephen Gaghan wrote its screenplay. Mr. Gaghan, who was responsible for another multi-layered film with multiple plotlines in ‘Syriana’ (2005), which also starred an ensemble cast of actors dealing with a different timely issue of oil and geopolitics in the Middle East. Unbeknownst to most people, ‘Traffic’ won numerous awards including for Oscar awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. This ensemble cast of actors for ‘Traffic’ is very impressive and includes star names such as Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta Jones.
At its’ core, ‘Traffic’ focuses on the illegal drug trade going on in both the United States and Mexico. One of the brilliant things about this film is the fact that each character in the movie represents a different perspective on the drug war whether they are a user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s unlikely that a film like ‘Traffic’ would be made today but it’s distinctive editing, multi-use of colors depending on which of the three stories are being highlighted, and the political relevance of its’ themes could keep a lot of viewers away these days.
Its’ importance and timeliness today can’t be overstated as this film doesn’t try to impose a point of view on the audience. ‘Traffic’ would rather cause the individual viewer to ask questions, seek out more knowledge about the issue, and weigh the different opinions expressed by the characters throughout the movie. The three-color grades that are used for the three different stories are probably one of the most interesting things that I’ve ever seen when it comes to film editing. Each story in ‘Traffic’ could be its’ own movie in its’ own right, and the film is lengthier than most in terms of run time at two hours and twenty minutes total.
To briefly highlight the substance of the three stories without spoiling the whole movie, let’s go over each one to introduce the arch of the overall plot to prospective viewers out there. The first story is mainly set in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which highlights the efforts of two Mexican police officers that are trying to do their job as enforcers of the law under difficult circumstances. While trying to bring down local cartels in the easiest way possible, the two officers, one of them, Javier Rodriquez (played by Benicio del Toro) come up against corruption, and crime within their own ranks, which makes their ability as officers to keep their areas safe difficult with money and influence blurring the line between the good guys and bad guys.
Officer Rodriguez (del Toro) wants to do his best to keep his job, but to also hold his fellow policemen and elements of the Mexican army accountable for their actions without compromising his safety. He knows that ending the drug war is futile but he wants to keep his immediate community safe and that of its’ inhabitants. This is especially true if it means that the local kids in his neighborhood can play baseball at night with new stadium lights and not be at risk of joining gangs instead in their free time.
The second storyline in ‘Traffic’ takes place between the nexus of small town Ohio and the capital city of Washington, DC in the United States. A conservative judge, Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), is appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he becomes an unofficial ‘drug czar.’ Mr. Wakefield doesn’t seem to be enthused with the new position he’s been given due to the long hours, lack of support, and political skepticism from the official circles within Washington. He tries to make the most of fighting the ‘war on drugs’ even if he knows deep down that it is truly unwinnable. Because he is away from his family for long periods of time, he is unaware that his daughter in high school has developed a drug problem over the past six months and is struggling with a heroin addiction now.
On top of dealing with being a father and the leader of a national drug control policy effort, he struggles to be a open and forthcoming husband to his wife. Compared to other characters in the film, Wakefield changes the most in his views on the ‘war on drugs’ as the audience can see that his mindset changes when this issue becomes personal and not just professional. With his daughter’s future and life at stake, the ‘war on drugs’ becomes less of an abstract war and more of a battle to save his family from falling apart.
The third and last storyline takes place mostly in southern California in the San Diego area where two DEA agents are conducting an underground investigation. The investigation, led by Agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle), eventually leads to the successful capture and arrest of a top drug dealer, Eduardo Ruiz, who pretends to be a fisherman as his cover.
This arrest is instrumental in helping along the trial of suspected drug lord, Carl Ayala, who is thought to be the leading distributor of illegal drugs for one of the biggest cartels in the world. Ruiz is important to be kept alive and in good shape so that he can testify to the illegal activities of Ayala and his empire, but that is harder for the DEA than they ever imagined. With Ayala’s possible imprisonment and/or cooperation, the DEA agents are hoping to bring down this cartel, once and for all.
However, since Ayala and his wife, Helen (played by Catherine Zeta Jones), have a lot of wealth and influence still, they are able to put a damper on the DEA’s plans with the help of the shady family lawyer, Arnie Metzger (played by Dennis Quaid). DEA Agent Gordon and his partner are unable throughout the film to cope with the long tentacles of the drug cartels, and the amount of money and hit men the Ayala’s are able to use to threaten the safety of the DEA’s witness and the potential success of the prosecution against Ayala. You could imagine that this particular story in the film does not come with a happy ending.
Any of the three unique yet intertwined storylines of ‘Traffic’ could be ripped from newspaper headlines from over the past forty years. Ever since the beginning of the ‘war on drugs’ back in the 1970’s, there has been endless debate about whether there have been any successes or mainly just the upholding of the status quo. ‘Traffic’ doesn’t try to impose a simple yes or no answer to the ‘war on drugs’ question.
Rather, this film intelligently asks its’ audience to weigh the outcomes of these different stories that are affected by the drug trade, and the viewer is supposed to make that decision for themselves. When it comes to special movies like ‘Traffic’, there are no simple black and white solutions. There are many shades of grey in all of these human stories, and it takes deep insight, critical thinking, and analysis in order for slow changes of the status quo to actually occur.
While this is a fictional movie, it is made clear by the film itself that a lot of these characters are based off of actual people who make up all sides of the ‘war on drugs.’ Overall, the one key thing that the ending of this film makes clear to the audience is that there are no winners in the drug war, only losers, and it takes an impactful movie like ‘Traffic’ to make that fact absolutely clear.