Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is what Crash (winner, 2005) should and could have been if Crash wasn’t a misanthropic and clear and utter disaster.
It’s quite a laugh the timeline of events in that last sequence. Crash had before it five years’ worth of knowledge from a critical and stylistic standpoint from the point-of-view of Traffic and its offerings, which are plenty. And the team behind Crash still managed to offer a too-long and pedantic tale of race and relations that somehow managed to trick The Academy to offer its top prize. Crash fails, in a broad stroke, in the banal presentation of its message; it tells instead of shows. It does instead of is.
Traffic, in a word, is anticlimactic. Where Crash throws the “point” in your face, Traffic is mostly back story and denouement. Where Crash tries to push a message, Traffic is deliberately restrained. There are three main story-lines: Michael Douglas’ Robert Wakefield, a conservative judge appointed to head the “war on drugs,” which he approaches in truly a bullish fashion until he discovers that his own daughter (Erika Christensen) is one of the many players in this fight against futility.
As a character, Wakefield is an open and reserved man wanting to understand the nature of his problem, while approaching it with an open mind. We follow him as a man from ruralish Ohio entering the sharp incisors of the Mexican/American drug trade. He questions the demand to the usual supply. More importantly, he questions his motives and ideals when he finds that his daughter is a victim of the cycle. He is no ideologue: a fountain through which many a film auteur has decided to spout “wisdom.” He is, however, an idealist, and in a brilliant piece of screenwriting, more value exists in that one sentence that isn’t said than what is and you, as the audience, can soak in the message. There’s no pandering here.
The second arc follows Benecio Del Toro (who later won a Best Supporting Actor for his work) in another brilliant and understated role as Javier Rodriguez,a mexican police officer intent on following a “good” and perhaps godly path. But Javier is not a “good” man; he watches his friend and partner die in an attempt to infiltrate a cartel to detonate it from inside. He constantly is at war with his morals and sacrifices himself for what he seems is a greater cause. He, like Wakefield, questions the motives of everyone around him. There is no climax to his story; in the end, he exchanges testimony for electricity and running water for the children in his neighborhood. As one man in an important position, he does what he can to help budge an unmovable mountain. If his actions can prevent even one child from succumbing to the pressures of the various cartels, he’ll consider his mission a success. In this way, Javier is a hero and a hardened idealist, much like Wakefield. We last see Javier sitting in the stands of a local neighborhood baseball game. No further explanation or obtuse message is necessary.
In a loose attempt to tie these stories together, our third arc follows the do-gooder intentions of two DEA agents intent on solving the supply end of the drug war. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman do a fine job portraying altruistic pawns who attempt to bring down a heavy hand on a wealthy kingpin. This arc offers a slightly more nebulous take on the issue; it shows survivalism in the face of clear and present danger. Above all, above Money and Power and Fame, comes Family, as we follow Zeta-Jones’ Mrs. Ayala contract to have her husband’s trafficking charges dropped, while plowing over the best laid plans of the agents. She knows they exist and their case relies on the testimony of a mid-level pusher. So she does what is necessary.
Necessity is a constant theme explored throughout the movie, across all the story-lines. It explores the ultimate nature of the word from the perspective of a drug user, who’ll do almost anything to get a fix, a goal-oriented officer, who watches a friend die to achieve an end and of a desperate wife, whose child is threatened in a very real way. And borne from necessity is desperation. The film navigates so effortlessly from story to story that it highlights the themes implicitly. And the characters are so compelling as vehicles that when the finality of all things does seem to pass like the ephemeral truth, but without the overstatement and hubris of a much larger “point.”
But standing above all the messages filtered through our characters, the pacing and development of the characters set this movie apart and unmatched since. In many reviews and thought-pieces about Traffic, the word “meanwhile” is used quite frequently, and not in a shape-shifting kind of way. Soderbergh, as director and cinematographer, can control the framing and even the tint of the shot to glide through this vortex of storytelling only he knows exists. When we feel like we’ve had enough Javier, the camera shifts back to either Wakefield or to Helena Ayala. When Helena becomes tiresome, we catch up with the DEA agents bugging Helena’s house and the duplicitous characters behind the border-trafficking. This happens for two hours and twenty minutes. One hundred and forty minutes of dramatic masterpiece.
As a year for Best Picture, 2000 featured Gladiator as its crown and lead actor Russell Crowe as Best Actor, the last film to award such a pair of accolades. Gladiator beat Traffic and another Soderbergh film, Erin Brockovich, Chocolat and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the award. Itself an epic work of great storytelling and acting, Gladiator is in its own right a masterpiece, but if I had to pick a movie to watch from 2000 based on pacing and message alone, I would watch and then mercilessly recommend Traffic.