Traffic cuts to the chase

Drug use and drug trafficking have been major issues in American society and politics for years. In the new dramatic thriller Traffic, by director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight), the political and social aspects of the drug war in America are vividly and stylistically portrayed on screen.

Traffic‘s story follows several characters whose lives are entangled in the war against drugs. The film opens with two Mexican police officers, Javier Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro, The Usual Suspects) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas, Selena), who are confronted with the corruption and temptations of the drug business. They must deal first hand with the power struggle between two leading Mexican drug cartels.

On the other side of the continent, Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas, The Game) has just taken the new and powerful position of the American “Drug Czar.” Wakefield begins collecting information and ideas on how to win the drug war, only to be confronted at home by problems with his cocaine-addicted teenage daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen, Leave it to Beaver).

Meanwhile, in Southern California, undercover Drug Enforcement Agency officers Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle, Mission to Mars) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman, Magnolia) bust an American drug trafficker and arrange a deal with him to bring down wealthy drug smuggler Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer, The Versace Murders). When Ayala is arrested, his shocked wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment), with the aid of her lawyer, (Dennis Quaid, Frequency) must take over her husband’s drug business in order to get him out of jail, saving herself and her son from dangerous drug smugglers.

The film follows the lives of these characters, showing the extreme actions they take to protect themselves and their families. Their stories are portrayed realistically, demonstrating the effects that the drug war has on people from several sides of the issue.

The film successfully meshes the political and social aspects of America’s drug dilemma. Corruption by officials, drug use in suburban culture and the overall ineffectiveness of current efforts to end drug trafficking and drug abuse are portrayed remarkably in this contemporary thriller.

Traffic is an absorbing film for several reasons. Dealing with American social and political problems is a generic theme in Hollywood, but dealing with a contemporary problem such as drugs is a tricky task. Soderbergh takes on the issue gracefully and shows all sides of it, but avoids preaching or even offering a final stance on the drug issue.

An overall solution to the drug war is, of course, not found, but the film presents both positive and negative outlooks for the future. In the movie the drug war continues, wealthy drug barons still smuggle narcotics into the country and the anti-drug movement is shown as a failure. However, Traffic portrays a positive movement to ending corruption of government officials, and the audience sees addicts taking the first step in fighting their addictions. The polarity of the final solution both frightens and uplifts the viewer.

Another aspect of Traffic that genuinely engrosses the audience is Soderbergh’s unique cinematography. The film runs like an adrenaline-charged documentary, utilizing hand-held camerawork for a realistic, unpolished look.

The stark differences in color and lighting between the scenes in Mexico and the United States contrast the two locations and their alternate ideals. In Mexico grainy desert scenery and brownish-red colors reflect the rugged manner in which the drug issue is being dealt with south of the border. The muted colors and intense white lighting in the United States reflects the calmer, more bureaucratic side to the issue.

The film excels in several ways, only failing in its length. At three hours, it proves somewhat draining. Stylistically, the film diverges from the typical, slick, Hollywood-style cinematography. Thematically, the film portrays a contemporary problem that has no easy solution and deals with it without placing blame or offering a final solution.

Critics are already praising the film, which has been nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture. The New York Film Critics awarded it the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Benecio Del Toro) awards. So far, Traffic is getting what it deserves.

Traffic is in theaters now.

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