A powerful film
What an incredible year for director Stephen Soderbergh. First, he delivers the powerful Erin Brockovich, and now comes Traffic, an astonishing look at the drug war. Never has a film on the subjects of drug trafficking and addiction been as riveting and important as this one.
The list of monumental acting achievements in this film rivals the likes of Magnolia for sheer volume and consistency. The list is so long that the raves each star deserves will not fit in this column, not even if it were triple its current length. Traffic stands as the work of a director who has earned the mantle of virtuoso. Soderbergh even acts as his own cinematographer under a pseudonym.
Featuring many characters involved in three main storylines, the film tells each section of its presentation with equal power. Benicio Del Toro is perhaps the film’s most memorable character as Javier, a Mexican policeman whose dream is to make his nation a safe place for its children to play baseball at night. Javier takes a long and strange journey in Traffic, from assisting a self-serving Mexican general to possible involvement with U.S. DEA agents to strike a crippling blow against Mexican drug cartels.
Speaking mostly Spanish, and even adding a few pounds for the role, Del Toro firmly establishes himself as a first-rate actor, providing Javier with the kind of compassion and mystery that makes the character moving and unforgettable. And although she has shown major appeal in past film roles, nothing has prepared you for the performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as Helena, the wife of a drug lord who thinks her husband is involved in legitimate business.
To discuss the dynamics of Helena at length would give away one of the films bigger shocks. Zeta-Jones manages to convey the full range of emotions in her screen time with a majestic grace, in addition to being nearly six months pregnant at the time of shooting. The way you end up feeling about Helena will come as a big surprise to you—almost as surprising as the talent that Zeta-Jones unleashes in her portrayal.
Taking over a role that was abandoned by an extremely stupid Harrison Ford is Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, Washington D.C.'s newly appointed drug czar. Wakefield is a good man, who is guilty of some neglect on the home front in favor of his well-intentioned work. Some of that neglect has contributed to his young daughter (the talented Erika Christensen) becoming dangerously addicted to crack and heroin.
While some films would have a father faced with this dilemma become an action hero vigilante (Soderbergh himself explored a similar situation with Terrence Stamp in The Limey), Douglas and his director manage to make Wakefield a very real, desperate and sometimes even pathetic man. The moment when Wakefield confronts his daughter and discovers her stash is one of the year’s most frightening. With his masterful work here and in Wonder Boys, Douglas caps a year that contains his two best performances.
Don Cheadle and the brilliant character actor Luis Guzman are always good as two DEA agents monitoring Zeta-Jones and capturing a thug (a mesmerizing Miguel Ferrer), who will soon testify against his boss. It is Ferrer’s character who delivers one of the film’s greater passages, when he informs Cheadle’s character that he, in a twisted way, is himself working for a drug cartel.
It’s frustrating to me that I don’t have a few more pages to sing the praises of this film. In a year that has been touted as one of the worst in film history, a year that gives me something like Traffic is not all that bad.