Traffic (2001)

Written by: Stephen Gaghan, based on the British  television series Traffik by Simon Moore

Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh

In the middle of a desert, a drug enforcement officer tells his partner of a nightmare about seeing his mother brutally murdered.

A group of privileged high school students sit around doping. At a storage rental facility, two cops descend on a drug dealer. A conservative judge defends the confiscation of a family farm over a small patch of marijuana. And a pregnant woman mingles with her wealthy friends at a golf course, blissfully unaware of what awaits her when she gets home. These scenes open this ambitious film, deftly written and directed with a magnificent cast, which tells four interconnected stories about greed and addiction.

Javier Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro), a Mexican police officer, has an opportunity to fight the drug trade. He is a complex character, both fiercely dedicated and somewhat corrupt. Caroline (Erika Christensen), a 16-year-old honors student at an exclusive private school, begins treading the slippery slope to drug addiction. Two dedicated cops, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), close in on a large-scale drug importer. Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) smoothly works the political scene as he becomes America’s Drug Czar. Politicians, lobbyists, and reporters chat about the drug problem over scotch and soda (you’ve gotta love the irony of that). And Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has to protect herself, her son, and her unborn child when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking.

These four intertwined tales take us further down a rabbit hole into the realm of drug enforcement in which, at best, the US government is portrayed as well intentioned but impossibly naive, and in which wealth and privilege–and a penchant for brutality–can buy immunity from the consequences of your actions while small-time dealers and dedicated, hard-working law enforcement officers die in the streets.

As a rule, I don’t enjoy “message” movies, and this film’s message is clear: the “war on drugs” will never be won through law enforcement. Granted, I couldn’t agree more with the message. I’m a former prevention specialist and adolescent substance abuse counselor — they’re preaching my religion.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of movie I don’t generally fall in love with. And at times, the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. At various points, throughout the film, a character speaks directly about why the “war on drugs” is tragically futile. It’s a bit like an old-school play in which the action freezes for a moment while an actor turns to the audience to explain what they’re seeing on stage.

It’s a tribute to this movie that, despite these flaws, I fell in love with it. This film is, for the most part, relentlessly grim, yet I found it surprisingly enjoyable — even humorous. You wouldn’t expect this to be a “fun” movie, yet, in many ways, it was. This is partly because of the thriller-like plotting and pacing and partly because of the rich character development. In a movie with only a few “good guys,” who are wonderfully flawed, all the main characters — including those who are morally repugnant — are multidimensional and fully human.

If this movie offers a shred of hope, it’s in the last few scenes. We see recovering addicts actively working 12-step programs and a new lighted baseball field keeping Tijuana’s youth off the streets (well done, Javier). If there is a glimmer of hope in this battle, that’s where it is: treatment and prevention. That final scene, in which Javier looks upon his hard-won baseball field, is quiet, cautiously hopeful, and truly beautiful.

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