[Written for Film.com]
In a very short period of time—since monkeying around with a self-made fandango called Schizopolis—Steven Soderbergh has mounted a kind of stealth attack on Hollywood formula moviemaking. Out of Sight brought suppleness to the traditional star vehicle, The Limey dizzily jumbled expectations in a revenge plot, Erin Brockovich expertly balanced the dictates of political film and inspirational comedy, and Traffic looks coldly but energetically at the drug war. Each film also manages the feat of being an obviously personal project of its director. And except perhaps for The Limey’s overtly indie status, each uses big Hollywood bucks (and movie stars) to subvert the usual order of things. That’s what makes it a stealth attack, of course.
Traffic is movie excitement from beginning to end. True to Soderbergh’s aim of shaking films out of their A-B-C arrangement, Traffic consists of different stories running side-by-side, all concerned with the war on drugs. First we meet a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro), mired with his partner (Jacob Vargas) in the widespread ooze of official corruption. On the other side of the border, things get sticky with a San Diego stool pigeon (Miguel Ferrer in great doomed second-rateness) prepared to testify against a big-time drug lord (Steven Bauer). The drug lord’s pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), heretofore unaware of the true source of her family’s cushy La Jolla lifestyle, turns into a jungle cat in a ferocious plan to reverse this setback. (Soderbergh’s casting is uncanny, here drawing out the panther-glint of ruthlessness that flashes in Zeta-Jones’s dark eyes.)
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where they have everything under control, a complacent Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) prepares to take over as the nation’s new “drug czar.” The irony is that he has no idea his own teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) is inhaling crack at preppie parties in the suburbs. One of the greatest things that can be said about writer Stephen Gaghan and Soderbergh’s design for the picture is that the character you’re watching at any given moment seems like the absolute center of the film, whether it’s a nominal star like Michael Douglas (a seamless performance, reeking of self-satisfaction but eventually snarling to his wife—Amy Irving—that he needs his Scotch before dinner “to keep from dying of boredom”) or DEA agents Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle, slippery lawyer Dennis Quaid, dangerously smart teen Topher Grace, and lofty Mexican general Tomas Milian—the latter a sublime turn for an old pro.
The only real knock I can think of against the film is the vague sense that we’ve seen the subject matter already; the entertainment industry is so obsessed with crime, the freshness of the material feels like it’s been NYPD Blue’d, Homicide’d, and Law and Order’d out of existence. What’s new is the overall acknowledgment of failure. Absolutely nothing in the system works, Traffic says, and everybody knows it.
Soderbergh, who operated the mostly handheld camera himself, serves up this American saga with bracing speed, but without losing psychological density. The jittery approach has less to do with realism than with immediacy; Soderbergh’s willingness to exaggerate the colors of the film’s different precincts (icy blue for Douglas’s life, humid yellow for Del Toro’s ethical journey) serves no notion of realism except the artistically appropriate kind. The best kind.
2020: Traffic went on to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and win in the categories of Best Direction, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Del Toro), and Editing. Incidentally, Soderbergh scored two nominations for Best Direction (a first since Michael Curtiz in the 1938 race), for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Soderbergh and Del Toro were also recognized by the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. The latter also voted Traffic Best Film of 2000.