Two years before The Wire dealt with the issues on a far grander scale, Steven Soderbergh delivered his take on the same subject in perhaps his best film to date. Like The Wire, Traffic doesn’t attempt to say who is right and wrong in “The war on drugs” but rather show how it affects the lives of a disparate group of people. Soderbergh doesn’t deliver a moral answer to the question (pretty much all characters present a different shade of grey), but rather a snapshot of the war at that time. The film doesn’t present what will happen, but rather a time capsule of events. It also blends his more interesting experimental films with the more commercial of his output, creating something that appeals to the popular whilst still requiring a degree of intelligence to follow. Soderbergh (like David Simon) trusts that his audience will keep up and only explains things once. Like Simon he also acknowledges that the war can never be won.
Soderbergh is an interesting director, in nearly twenty odd films he never seems to have delivered quite what we’ve expected based on his previous output and here was no exception. Whilst other films dealing with drugs at the time dealt with the issue of addiction, Soderbergh here focusses on the bureaucracy that exists on both sides of the divide and the manner in which it affects everyone. Crucially he remains detached from whether drugs are right or wrong, but doesn’t shy away from showing how they affect the lives of those involved in them – some profit from them (and are able to manage their use with no problems), others have their lives torn apart. He doesn’t get everything right (indeed, the film is rife with inaccuracies), but he does manage to convey the sense of chaos that is at the heart of the conflict (which could equally be about any illegal activity). The speed with which he shot the film (less than two months) also helps, things move at a brisk pace and despite its serious subject matter the film moves like an action film – Soderbergh maintains our attention throughout. No scene outstays its welcome, information is delivered and then we move on.
Whilst all of this could descend into cliché with another director in order to simplify the issue, Soderbergh uses film as a medium to simplify the telling of the story whilst retaining the complexity of the subject. Lightweight digital cameras would make the task easier for later films (as shown by Soderbergh himself with “Che”), but here the director was forced to utilise different film stock and lenses to produce three distinct visual appearances to each chapter of the film, enabling the viewer to keep tabs of the interlocking stories by the colour palette of the scene – cool blues for Washington, warm orange for San Diego and dirty brown for Mexico. Visually these fit with the thematic of each piece as well, Washington is (initially) detached from the issue, San Diego involved on an intimate domestic level and Mexico at the harsh end of events. Occasionally the stories collide, but here we are presented the events on the colours of the person(s) we should be following. Whilst it may seem trite (and this was when other filmmakers such as Oliver Stone were going crazy with variable film stock), Soderbergh uses it as just another tool to tell the story. Whilst there are occasional embellishments to the filming (including an extraordinary shot of a helicopter landing) for the most part the film has an almost documentary zeal, closely shot over the shoulders of those involved.
Likewise, Soderbergh is wise enough to mix big names as a draw with respected (and up-and-coming) character actors to flesh out the large cast (there are well over a hundred speaking parts and at least twenty major roles in the film). The film requires us to have preconceptions about the actor for us to understand the backstory with as little information as possible, very few characters grow during the course of the film and certainly (with one exception) none of them have a sense of closure come the end. At best a small victory is all that can be achieved, which is why the baseball game at the end means so much there is a possible route out of this mess. Well established actors often turn up merely for one scene before disappearing into the ether, this is not a film that actors could approach as a vanity project. Del Toro took all of the plaudits but for me Don Cheadle has possibly the best role as the officer who knows that what he’s doing won’t make a blind bit of difference but chooses still to do it. The scene at the end where he confronts a man that everyone knows to be a major player in the drug trade and vents his frustration at the fact that the issue will never be resolved, legislation will just alter the border between what is legal and what isn’t.
Traffic makes the list because it’s one of those rare Hollywood films that treat its audience with a degree of intelligence, and more importantly as adults. Far too few films these days are aimed at adults, certainly not productions of this scale as the studios want either larger, effects driven monstrosities (which are guaranteed to at least make their budget back) or ridiculously low-budget films where the costs can be written off. In the view of the studios the market for adult orientated mid budget films is not worth pursuing, and whilst they do still get made they are becoming increasingly uncommon.