Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 epic about the War on Drugs, gets a ton of mileage out of telling gritty, taught stories about real people, and letting an audience decide. For an infuriating, maddening issue like the war on drugs, he seems to have prescribed a hard-reset on narrative conventions of genre and heroism. What we get instead feels like a documentary: a film in which every character arrives in frame motivated by circumstance and emotion. Nobody is good or bad, they are simply victims of their environment. Suddenly it’s all understandable – there is no “evil” in this world, there are simply people doing the best with what they have, and sometimes that means taking a bribe, or pushing freebase, or selling out to wealthy criminal. It’s a bold choice to humanize the enemy, rather than vilify him, but I’d say it does the trick.
In his insanely good State of Cinema speech to the San Francisco Film Festival this year, Soderbergh called art “a very elegant problem-solving model.” In the hands of a smart filmmaker, this idea has enormous power – suddenly the medium is no longer about escape or transportation. With this idea, film can even aspire to be more than “life-affirming,” which seems to be the benchmark of absolute quality. As a model for problem solving, film can be life-prolonging. Did Traffic make people think twice about starting or continuing to use or buy drugs? Absolutely. Were lives saved in that equation? Hard to say, but I’m cool with ‘yes.’
I was very frightened by Traffic when I saw it in the theater. I was in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really any of the violence or unsavory characters that frightened me, or even the underaged drug use, but by the choice it left me with. The events in Traffic are emblematic of a problem that defies solution – some days getting worse, some days getting better, but always, always there. My take-away was very personal. I remember thinking that I, myself stood on the precipice of choice, not just on viewing the film, but every day henceforth – to wake up every day prepared to reject drugs, or in one puff to become both victim of and accomplice to a war being fought every day, complete with bloodshed, corruption, and no-end-in-sight. By asking us to make a choice, Soderbergh has taken a major step toward “solving” a problem – with a choice, there can be progress.
It bears noting that the film debuted just a year before 9/11. Traffic comes to us from a filmmaker obsessed with the failure of man’s institutions to serve him. Just look at the scene where Douglas asks the plane full of advisers to pitch him ideas “out of the box,” only to be greeted with the most deafening silence. In capturing the drug war, It almost seems as though Soderbergh presaged a decades’ worth of big-issue films. In reality, he simply followed his instinct to tell a real story, and ended up defining the voice in which a generation of artists and audiences could grapple with an erratic enemy, a disappointing government and a feeling of hopelessness in a time when terror always feels near.
There is the feeling that most characters that are alive in the last frame of Traffic are lucky to have survived at all – and not all of them do. The silver linings we get, faint as they are, are found on the edges of very dark clouds – we don’t get to see Douglas acknowledge and support his daughter’s addiction until he’s been forced to travel himself into Cincinnati’s roughest neighborhood to search for her in seedy motels and drug dens. To this day, Soderbergh’s films like Contagion and even comedies like The Informant! explore what Soderbergh must consider the fatally flawed relationship between flesh-and-blood individuals and the immovable institutions, and we will very likely continue to reference his work (and ask him for more of his own) as our governments, institutions and parents continue to fail us. His films are the tales of man’s most dire moments in the real-life, real world: irretrievably addicted, caught in a lie, surprised by a bomb. Is it an unrealistic demand for more films to be “life-prolonging,” especially in the face of such troubling odds? Can honest filmmaking remedy Terror? Climate change? Human trafficking? If this is what we’re up against, we need to start somewhere.