By Thane Peterson There's a moment in Traffic that sums up the movie's theme in a flash. On a plane to Mexico, Michael Douglas, playing the U.S. government's newly appointed drug czar, is holding a meeting with a dozen or so functionaries from the Drug Enforcement Agency and other arms of the national "war on drugs." He asks for some "out of the box" thinking on how to start winning a war that obviously is being lost. "On this plane only, the dam is open for new ideas," he says. The camera holds steady for several long seconds on the embarrassed faces. The invitation is met with dead silence.
Traffic explores the human implications of a single contention: that America's war on drugs has been a colossal and costly failure. Director Steven Soderbergh jump-cuts between three intertwined stories. Douglas plays an Ohio Supreme Court judge chosen as the national drug czar just as he and his wife (Amy Irving) discover that their 16-year-old daughter is addicted to crack cocaine.
POWERFUL DESIRES. Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing a pregnant San Diego housewife, becomes the center of the second narrative when her husband is arrested and she realizes her opulent lifestyle is subsidized by drug smuggling. The third skein in the yarn is the tale of an honest, street-smart Mexican cop (Benecio Del Toro) caught up in the web of a Tijuana drug ring. The message: that government policy can never defeat the powerful human desires and market forces driving the drug trade.
For my money, Traffic -- which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 27, making it eligible for this year's Oscars -- should win for Best Picture. But it's far from a shoo-in, even for the nomination, partly because it has such strong competition from Erin Brockovich, a star vehicle for Julia Roberts that Soderbergh also directed.
It's unusual for one director to have two movies up for Best Picture -- the last time it happened was 1974, with Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Godfather II, which ultimately took the prize. So, there's some talk that only one of Soderbergh's films will get the nod when the Best Picture nominations are announced in February (the actual awards are on Mar. 25).
A GENUINE JOLTER. I hope the Academy Awards people get this right. Traffic is far superior to Erin Brockovich. It jolts you out of your seat. The first time I saw it, we arrived at the theater late and had to sit in the third row. At such close quarters, the movie's tight, in-your-face camera work was overwhelming. Sheryl Larson, my friend and frequent movie-viewing companion, kept sighing and wincing and, at times, seemed ready to get up and leave. It's that powerful.
Much of the film's wallop comes from that camera work, which Soderbergh, 38, did himself, with a Panavision Millennium XL, a light new model that makes it easy to maneuver. That put the actors and director in an unusually intimate relationship. But there's more than that to the film's success. This movie offers no easy prescriptions. And even with Zeta-Jones and Douglas in the cast, big-name actors don't dominate the film. It's an ensemble production. All the performances are striking.
For a Hollywood production, Traffic also is visually innovative. To keep the audience from being confused as the movie flips back and forth among its three stories, each one is shot in a different hue. The Ohio and Washington scenes feature cool blues, the Mexico scenes are stained a dirty yellow, and the San Diego story that centers on Zeta-Jones is in bright yellow. This sunniness -- and the idyllic scenes of her caring for her young son and chowing down at a club lunch with her wealthy women friends -- lend irony to the film.
DIFFICULT ROLE. The best performance among many good ones is that of Del Toro, who gives the Mexican cop a knowing cool. The segments shot in Mexico have a strong documentary feel, partly because much of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles. Del Toro has many of the most difficult scenes: His character picks up a vicious hit man in a bar by pretending to be gay, turns the tables on two DEA agents in dialogue delivered in a hotel swimming pool, and is driven to a remote desert area where he expects to be executed.
He's also hopelessly idealistic, forcing U.S. drug authorities to build a baseball field for disadvantaged Tijuana youth instead of taking the bribe they offer him. Yet in Del Toro's subtle portrayal, this improbable cop comes off as entirely believable.
The scenes in San Diego are almost as good. In real life, Zeta-Jones was pregnant with Douglas' child (they've since married) during filming, so she's convincingly puffy. The script calls for her to segue from contented housewife to steely drug lord a bit too rapidly, but she manages to pull it off. By the time she spits orders into a cell phone for a hit man to "just take the gun and shoot" the main witness against her husband, you're convinced she's entirely capable of doing the deed herself. There also are a couple of wonderful, wisecracking performances by Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman as the two cops who arrest her husband and try unsuccessfully to protect the main witness against him.
SINS OF OMISSION. I found the tale of Douglas' drug-addicted daughter(Erika Christensen) far less convincing. Christensen is excellent, especially when she's registering euphoria and confusion in the wake of smoking crack or shooting up with heroin. But even as she plunges into addiction and prostitution, there's none of the physical deterioration that a real drug addict would have. We never see her in withdrawal. And her treatment is shown only in a few stereotypical shots of the Twelve Step meetings she attends. Such omissions, I suppose, are the inevitable price of packing three stories into a single movie.
Pulling off two quality movies in one year is quite a coup for the Baton Rouge-born Soderbergh, who burst on to the scene in 1989, when his low-budget independent film sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The unknown director was a tender 26 and already deeply influenced by such European auteurs as France's Alain Resnais. For the following decade, he largely disappeared to everyone but film buffs as he stubbornly made critically acclaimed but unprofitable films such as 1991's Kafka and King of the Hill, a Depression-era coming-of-age story. His more recent films -- Out of Sight in 1998, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and The Limey in 1999, starring Terence Stamp -- were more commercial but not wildly successful.
On the face of it, Traffic and Erin Brockovich indicate that Soderbergh has gone Hollywood. Regardless of whether either movie wins the Best Picture award, both already are quite successful. Erin Brockovich grossed $125 million last year and, on Jan. 21, earned Roberts a Golden Globe Award as Best Actress. Del Toro won a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his work in Traffic. And though Traffic has not been a huge moneymaker -- Soderbergh made for $46 million, a relative pittance by Tinseltown standards -- it at least grossed more in its first four weeks than it cost to make.
QUIET ARTISTRY. But Soderbergh remains quirky and individualistic -- even in a conventional David and Goliath story like Erin Brockovich, made for Universal Pictures. The movie is clearly designed as a star turn for Roberts who, playing a brassy law-firm secretary taking on a giant utility company, appears in every scene. But in total defiance of Hollywood tradition, it's a legal drama that doesn't culminate in a courtroom scene. And early in the movie, Soderbergh shows his quiet artistry when he shoots a car accident so that the collision occurs in the corner of the screen, where it's barely noticeable. This mimics how accidents actually happen: You see something out of the corner of your eye, there's a crunch, and it takes a few seconds for you to figure out what has happened.
Traffic, made by USA Films, shares some of the flaws of most Hollywood movies. It's so tightly edited, for instance, that it's like a graphic layout with no white space. There's no time for languid moments in American movies anymore. And at 140 minutes, Traffic already is longer than Hollywood usually allows.
But the movie also suggests Soderbergh is unlikely to ever knuckle under to Hollywood completely. Where he's going with his next project -- a remake of the Sinatra Rat Pack movie Ocean's 11 -- I have no idea. But it's sure to offer some surprises. Back in 1989, after winning the Palme d'Or, Soderbergh quipped: "I guess it's all downhill from here." On the contrary, this is a director with a great future. I just hope his latest project gets the recognition it so richly deserves. Peterson is a contributing editor at Business Week Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online