Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Traffic

I’ve never done drugs, but it’s not something I’m particularly proud of.

What I mean is it’s not a fact of my life that I wave around like a badge of honor. I’m not full of self-righteous bullshit, like a smiling “I’M HIGH ON LIFE!” motivational poster you’d see in a high school guidance counselor’s office. I’m not entirely sure what my reasons are for never having done any illegal substances or abuse legal ones.

It’s not like I haven’t had the chance to use them either. Most of my friends, whether in high school, college or beyond, have smoked pot. It’s been easily accessible to me, smoked in my face and generously offered. But I never accepted. Over the years, I’ve also heard stories and rumors of some acquaintances doing harder stuff, so I’m sure if I had ever taken any initiative I could have gotten my hands on just about anything.

But something about getting high never really appealed to me. First of all, I’ve always considered myself already completely naturally fucked in the head so I don’t need anything to screw me up more. Plus, I’ve never really had any desire to, I don’t know, alter my perception of reality or change my personality through artificial means. I mean, I want to alter my angst-ridden, neurotic personality just about on a daily basis, but I don’t think drugs are going to honestly make me a nicer person.

So, now that we have that all out of the way, I do want to say that even though I’ve never done drugs myself I: A) have no problem with other people doing them; and B) think they should be legal. And thus, depending on your stance regarding those two opinions will probably determine whether or not you like the movie TRAFFIC. Me, I can’t decide.

While I do not advocate talking or making any kind of noise during a movie, many people, including myself, booed when Senator Orrin Hatch appeared onscreen during a scene in the film. I don’t even know what I was booing at. If you asked me why I don’t like Mr. Hatch, I couldn’t give you a specific answer as to what he’s done, so I should not condemn the man. But the booing was such a gut reaction I couldn’t control myself and I apologize if I distracted anyone from the movie.

TRAFFIC is directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose last film was ERIN BROCKOVICH, a liberal leaning film about the true story of a white trash woman who single-handedly takes on a major electric corporation that was illegally dumping toxic waste in a poor southern California that gave the local residents cancer. So, going into TRAFFIC I was pretty much assuming the film would be a liberal-sided look at the futility and absurdity of the past decade or two’s “War on Drugs”. However, when Orrin Hatch, a right-wing Senator, popped up in a cameo I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the movie.

Which is good. Because when you’re dealing with a complicated issue it’s best to tackle it from all perspectives, otherwise what you end up with is nothing more than a piece of propaganda – rightwing, liberal, or what have you. However, there were some stereotypes in TRAFFIC that I couldn’t let go of and I don’t know if that’s the fault of the film or if it’s just the result of my own biases.

For example, the movie is split into multiple storylines, two of which are: 1) Don Cheadle and Luis Guzm├ín are detectives taking down a major California drug supplier; and 2) Benicio Del Toro is the only non-corrupt cop in all of Mexico. I know the film already had a billion storylines crisscrossing each other and that it couldn’t tackle every single issue of the drug trade and anti-drug enforcement, but I was still bothered by the fact that a general message of the film (even if non-intentional, but lying underneath nonetheless) is that “All Mexican law enforcement officials are corrupt and all Americans are pure and just”.

I also wasn’t too happy with the storyline revolving around Michael Douglas’ daughter, Erika Christensen. While he’s appointed the nation’s new “Drug Czar”, she’s a spoiled little rich kid who freebases heroin. I was never convinced as to the reasons why she did drugs and when she was acting “high”, she kind of just looked goofy to me. However, they did get it right, if a bit overboard, by making her a straight-A student who also does drugs. All my pothead high school friends were in the National Honor Society.

Finally, though, I do want to stress how fucking amazing I think Steven Soderbergh is. He may be just about the only director working today to have handled this film properly. Though I may not have enjoyed TRAFFIC 100%, Steven has a beautiful gift of visually keeping together a film with many stories so that whenever the movie switches from one scene to another you know EXACTLY where and when you are. It’s really just a gorgeous film to look at and it’s extremely well acted and paced.

TRAFFIC is, without a doubt, worth watching, but I can’t guarantee how anyone else will react to it. Right-minded people may consider it “liberal garbage”, radicals might think it’s not “liberal” enough and liberals might think it sends a good message. I don’t normally like indulging in assuming other people’s points of view, but I’m not sure how else to write or describe this film to anyone. TRAFFIC isn’t an intensely thought-provoking film, but it at least tries to be and I have to be appreciative of the effort that such a high-profile mainstream film would attempt something like this.