Monday, May 11, 2009


NOTE: This article first appeared over the Film for the Soul blog for the very ambitious and awesome Counting Down the Zeroes series.

By the time Steven Soderbergh made Traffic (2000), he was at the zenith of his powers and popularity having just come off the crowd pleaser, yet socially conscious Erin Brockovich (2000), with an even more powerful critique on a problem that plagues the United States – the war on drugs. He depicts it on a macro and micro level with a masterful command of craft that also manages to balance his artsy sensibilities with his mainstream ones. Soderbergh does it in a way that isn’t preachy, making a film that simultaneously entertains and has something to say.

Traffic is comprised of three storylines. The first one starts off in Mexico with two police officers, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) as they deal with the drug cartels and their corrupt superiors who are in league with them. The next story takes place in Ohio and Washington, D.C. as Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has been appointed the new drug czar for the United States while his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) freebases drugs with her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace). Caroline and Seth are two cocky, intelligent teenagers who do drugs because it feels good and, for them, it is a rebellious act. After all, they are over-privileged spoiled brats. The last story takes place in San Diego as two undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) arrest a middleman Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) of a drug cartel in the hopes that he’ll testify against his boss Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). When he is subsequently arrested, his wife Helen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) goes from being a naive, affluent housewife to a savvy powerbroker who takes control of and learns how to deal with her tough, Mexican counterparts and in doing so because an equal to her husband, ruthless in her methods to protect her family.

The opening scene of the film not only introduces us to one of the film’s main characters, Javier, but also provides us with a glimpse into how law enforcement works in Mexico. Javier and Manolo bust a truck full of drugs only to have it and their prisoners taken away by a General Salazar (a wonderfully eccentric Tomas Milian) who, as we find out later, is working for a rival drug cartel. Judge Wakefield has a very black and white view of dealing with the drug problem because he is so far removed from it, but by the film’s end he will have intimate knowledge of its devastating effects. With the casting of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, one wonders if Soderbergh was a big fan of Boogie Nights (1997) as he teams up two of its stars. On their way to meet with Ferrer they bicker like old friends who have been partners for some time – Cheadle even warns Guzman not to tell a joke as it will blow their cover. And wouldn’t you know it, when they have a sit-down with Ferrer, Guzman tells a joke. It’s a nice touch that lightens the mood for a moment.

Steven Soderbergh had been interested in making a film about the drug wars for some time but didn’t want to make one about addicts. Producer Laura Bickford acquired the rights to the United Kingdom mini-series Traffik and liked its structure. Soderbergh had seen it in 1990. He and Bickford started looking for a screenwriter and read a script by Stephen Gaghan entitled Havoc about upper-class white kids in Palisades High School doing drugs and involved with gangs. Soderbergh approached Gaghan to work on his film, however, he was already working for producer/director Ed Zwick. Bickford and Soderbergh approached Zwick who agreed to merge the two projects and come aboard as a producer.

Traffic was originally going to be made at 20th Century Fox but it was put into turnaround unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star. When the actor showed interest in the film this in turn renewed the studio's interest. Fox CEO Bill Mechanic championed the film but he left by the time the first draft was finished and this caused the project to go into turnaround. Mechanic also wanted to make some changes to the script but Soderbergh disagreed and decided to take the film to the other major studios. They turned Soderbergh and his producers down because studio executives were scared of a three-hour film about drugs, according to Gaghan. USA Films wanted to do it from the first time Soderbergh approached them. They provided the filmmakers with $46 million budget, a considerable increase from the $25 million that Fox offered.

Soderbergh had "conceptual discussions" with Gaghan while he was shooting The Limey in October 1998 and they finished the outline before he went off to shoot Erin Brockovich. After Soderbergh was finished with that film, Gaghan had written a first draft in six weeks that was 165 pages long. After the film was greenlit, Soderbergh and Gaghan met two separate times for three days working all day reformatting the script. The draft they shot with had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities. The film shortens the storyline of the original mini-series – a major character arc, that of a farmer, is taken out, and the Pakistani plotline is replaced with one set in Mexico.

Harrison Ford was initially considered for the role of Judge Robert Wakefield in January 2000 but would have had to take a significant cut in his usual $20 million salary. Ford met with Soderbergh to flesh out the character and Gaghan agreed to rework the role, adding several scenes that ended up in the finished film. On February 20, Ford turned down the role and the filmmakers brought it back to Michael Douglas who had turned down an earlier draft. He liked Ford's changes and agreed to star which helped greenlight the project. Gaghan believes that Ford turned down the role because he wanted to "reconnect with his action fans.”

After Fox dropped the film and USA Films was interested, Soderbergh paid for pre-production with his own money. USA Films agreed to give him final cut on Traffic and when any Mexican characters spoke to each other, it would be in Spanish. However, this meant that almost all of Benicio del Toro's dialogue would be subtitled. Once the studio realized this they suggested that his scenes be shot in both English and Spanish. Del Toro was worried that some other actor would be brought in and re-record his dialogue in English after working hard to master Mexican inflections and improve his Spanish vocabulary. Del Toro remembers, "Can you imagine? You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said, 'No way. Over my dead body.' Steven was like, 'Don't worry. It's not gonna happen.'" The director fought for subtitles for the Mexico scenes arguing that if the characters did not speak Spanish, the film would have no integrity and would not as convincingly portray what he described as the "impenetrability of another culture.”

The filmmakers went to the DEA and U.S. Customs early on with the screenplay and told them that they were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. The DEA and Customs pointed out inaccuracies in the script and gave them access but didn’t try to influence the content of the script. Soderbergh cites the influence of the films of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard and he spent a lot of time analyzing The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Z (1969), which, according to the director, had the feeling that the footage was caught and not staged. He was also inspired by Alan J. Pakula’s film All the President’s Men (1976) because he admired its ability to tackle serious issues while also being entertaining. In the opening credits of his film, Soderbergh tried to replicate the typeface from All the President's Men and also the placement on-screen – bottom left-hand corner. Analyzing this film helped the director deal with the large cast and working in many different locations for Traffic.

Half of the first day's footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio bosses knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. The insurers made him agree that any further lensing mishaps resulting in additional shooting would come out of the director's own pocket. Soderbergh shot in cities on a 54-day schedule and came in $2 million under budget. The director operated the camera himself in an effort to "get as close to the movie as I can," and to eliminate the distance between the actors and himself. Soderbergh drew inspiration from the cinema verite style of Ken Loach’s films, studying the framing of scenes, the distance of the camera to the actors, lens length, and the tightness of eyelines depending on the position of a character. Soderbergh remembers, "I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic.” Most of the day was spent shooting because a lot of the film was shot with available light.

Soderbergh gives each storyline its own unique look so that it is easier to keep track of where we are and shows the distinction between the borders within the drug war as the film frequently jumps back and forth from each story. The Mexican one has a yellow, sunburnt look, the D.C. story adopts a cold, gun metal blue look and the San Diego one is the most realistic looking with no filters. The director utilizes extensive hand-held camerawork that not only gives this epic film a more intimate feel (because he can get right in there with the actors) but also gives certain scenes a sense of tension and urgency. It also gives the film a feeling of authenticity, a realness that comes from docudramas, like The Battle of Algiers.

For the hand-held camera footage, Soderbergh used Millennium XLs that were smaller and lighter than previous cameras and allowed him to go anywhere with it. In order to tell the three stories apart, he adopted a distinctive look for each. For Robert Wakefield's story, Soderbergh used tungsten film with no filter for a cold, monochrome blue feel. For Helena Ayala's story, Soderbergh used diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposing it for a warmer feel. For Javier's story, the director used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to produce a strobe-like sharp feel. Then, he took the entire film through an Ektachrome step which increased the contrast and grain significantly He wanted to have different looks for each story because the audience had to keep track of many characters and absorb a lot of information and he did not want them to have to figure out which story they were watching.

Each story illustrates the futility of trying to win this so-called war on drugs. The Mexico story shows how an honest lawman like Javier walks a dangerous line where he tries to make a difference while avoiding angering his corrupt superiors who would kill him if he doesn’t do what he’s told. The D.C. story shows how deeply drugs have infiltrated our society when an affluent politician’s daughter becomes a drug addict, going to the poor slums to get high. How can he win the war on drugs when he can’t even keep his own daughter away from it? The San Diego storyline shows how those at the top of the drug food chain are untouchable because they have the money to maintain a respectable façade and can afford the best lawyers money can buy to make any charges brought against them go away.

Traffic was very well-received by film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn't preach. It is so restrained that at one moment—the judge's final speech—I wanted one more sentence, making a point, but the movie lets us supply that thought for ourselves.” The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote, "Traffic is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he's going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled.”

Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and praised Benicio Del Toro's performance, calling it, "haunting in his understatement, becomes the film's quietly awakening moral center.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, "Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade.” In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, " The hand-held camerawork – Soderbergh himself did the holding - provides a documentary feel that rivets attention.” However, Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, "there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another.”

While it’s true that Traffic doesn’t really say anything new about the war on drugs, it does reinforce how prevalent drugs are in our society and show how clueless our government is in their attempts to stop it. The problem is that the infrastructure that is in place is dysfunctional so that even when honest men like Javier or Wakefield come along with the best of intentions, they become ensnared in bureaucratic red tape. Traffic seems to suggest that the best that these men can do is make a difference in their own small pocket of the world, whether it is Javier brokering a deal so that his town gets baseball field and the ability to play games at night, or Wakefield finally making a personal connection with his daughter in a meaningful way. The drug problem will never go away no matter how much money and manpower our government throws at it.


  1. Amazing post on a film I really need to revisit. I was wondering JD if you saw USA's mini-series version of this that came out after the film, a work that I found extremely powerful as well.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jeremy. I really dig this film and it has held up well over the years. Sadly, I have not seen the USA mini-series version but you have piqued my curiousity. I will have to track it down.

  3. Hey JD. Great post. I love this film. It is a very well done film. The cast is amazing.

  4. Thanks for the compliments, Keith! Yeah, it is definitely up there as one of my fave Soderbergh films.

  5. J.D.

    Good write-up.

    I was able to catch this again the other night on HBO or something and despite the late hour, my wife and I watched the entire thing.

    I compare it to Goodfellas in that it is a series of great scenes that you never want to walk away from. Just when you think you might have a stopping point, there's another great scene you don't want to miss.

    The one weakness of this film, and I would have to disagree with Mr. Ebert's quote in this post is that I do feel that Douglas' monologue at the end gets a bit too preachy. It feels disconnected from the rest of the movie because it does show its hand too much.

    But in my rewatching of this, it was evident that this is a timeless classic.

    Thanks for paying it proper tribute.

  6. Hey Piper! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. You do have a point about Douglas' final monologue and that's why I'm glad Soderbergh ends the film on a silent, soulful shot of Benicio Del Toro watching kids play baseball on the field he made happen with the deal he cut with the U.S. government. I've always felt that it ends the film on a really nice note.

  7. J.D.
    I finally got around to seeing this film and it was everything you covered in your splendid review.
    It was a solid film and impressively shot.
    Honestly, I'm not much a of a Soderberg fan at all but this was a solid picture and del Toro was great.

    There were some pretty tough moments in the film too particularly with the parent/ child relationships.

    RE: License To Kill, Is del Toro one of the few Bond villains to go on to a hue career?

    Obviously Walken doesn't count because he was established as others have been as well. Worth a look.

    Great work as always J.D.

  8. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Awesome! So glad you finally saw this. I really dig this film a lot and most of that is down to Del Toro's soulful performance. He really deserved the Oscar for this one.