Main cast: Michael Douglas (Robert Wakefield), Don Cheadle (Montel Gordon), Benicio del Toro (Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez), Luis Guzmán (Ray Castro), Dennis Quaid (Arnie Metzger), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Helena Ayala), Steven Bauer (Carlos Ayala), Benjamin Bratt (Juan Obregon), James Brolin (General Ralph Landry), Clifton Collins Jr (Francisco Flores), Miguel Ferrer (Eduardo Ruiz), Erika Christensen (Caroline Wakefield), Albert Finney (Chief of Staff), Topher Grace (Seth Abrams), Amy Irving (Barbara Wakefield), DW Moffett (Jeff Sheridan), Peter Riegert (Attorney Michael Adler), and Jacob Vargas (Monolo)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
With a star studded cast and what seems to be everybody who’s somebody making cameo appearances here and there, Traffic could have been a too-many-cooks disaster. But this movie, based on a four-part BBC series Traffik, is an elegant, simple, yet powerful movie about the complexities of the drug war.
If anything, its agenda is to demolish the drug war propaganda, expose it for the futility cycle it is, and sell the concept of prevention from family level and rehabilitation. In short, kill the demand, not the supply. The preachy nature of Traffic weakens this movie for me, but otherwise, this movie is a superb watch.
It tells of several seemingly unrelated but actually related stories, the favorite method for filmmakers wanting to win awards. Javier and Monolo are two Mexican cops trying to make sense and survive the corruption-infested drug war in their state. They soon find themselves trapped in a war between two powerful drug lords. Betrayal and all ensue.
In USA, judge Robert Wakefield is just appointed the new US Drug Enforcement Agency head and he learns that the DEA is actually waging a war of futility: the drug czars have more money and resources on their hands than ten DEAs combined. The drug czars don’t have red tape either. Robert has to deal with his own problems when his daughter embarks on a self-destructive road of drug addiction.
Meanwhile, the unsuspecting Helena’s world is turned upside down when her husband is dragged off by the law because he turns out to be a drug kingpin. Worse, the husband’s shady dealing buddies now demand that she pay them three million dollars or her son will die. Two wisecracking cops, Montel and Ray, bug her house and are on her trail all day and night to find evidences to bust her husband.
Traffic exposes how the DEA is actually shooting in the dark. They have really no idea just how much they are up against. And they have human greed working against them too. Mexico’s corruption-infested government is not much help either, if at all. Still, this one could have been just a propaganda video were not for the superb performances from the cast (especially Benicio del Toro’s poignant portrayal of a noble cop) and the gentle yet elegant storytelling style. It uses simple scene frames to convey messages and apart from the above mentioned burst of speeches, it evokes the show, not tell, school of storytelling powerfully. The final scene remains a haunting scene of promises of hope.
Ironically, despite its pro-rehab stance, Traffic also pays tribute to the courageous men and women who fight the losing battle against the drug czars. Robert Wakefield may lose his idealism, but he gains his family back. The cops that survive, but not without scars, to fight another day also get their own somewhat happy endings, albeit brief, tentative promises of a better future.
That’s the power and beauty of this movie – its elegant story draws me in, and the brilliant cast lures me into caring for every character’s lives and stories so much, that I am forced to think and reevaluate my own beliefs alongside theirs. But this movie is ultimately inspiring: a salute to the noble, courageous men and women who fight a losing battle but fight it still they do, because they believe and they hope. It is a tribute to men like Montel, Ray, and Javier while simultaneously a tale of the horrors of drug addiction, a tale of human greed and difficult choices, and a tale of brotherhood and sacrifice. A movie that can actually deliver all these facets of its story with equally stunning brilliance is surely a masterpiece.