The so-called War on Drugs America has waged with itself and various other parts of the world for more than a generation is one of the greatest policy disasters in recent history. Nobody with more than two brain cells believes this "war" is being won or can be won. Each year, more technology and money gets thrown into the fray, more people end up in jail, the courts are clogged even more, and more drugs come into the country, where significant numbers of Americans, young and old, use them. Understandably, the United States is a laughing stock on this issue.
That few politicians dare to seriously reconsider alternatives to this catastrophe is a commentary on the wretched state of our corporatized, two-party, big media-sponsored political system. Drug policies barely surface in the presidential campaign beyond moral posturing, which shouldn't be that much of a surprise; little else of substance did either.
It's in that context that Traffic is a bracing look at the mess.
It's a pretty amazing movie, too, another worthy addition to the strong holiday line-up -- Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonL, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Unbreakable-- that made last months' movies far more interesting than those of the preceding eleven.
If Traffic is dazzling at times, it isn't uniformly so -- the story is told in three interwoven parts, each with a distinct cinematic look, pace and style. There are an astounding 129 speaking parts in the 147-minute film, adding to its documentary, fast-paced feel. The first is shot in gauzy brown, the second through blue filters, the third in crisp, bright sunshine. Soderburgh shot the film himself, pseudonymously, often using hand-held cameras. When it works, it really works.
One story centers around two Mexican state troopers (Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) drawn into the shadowy world of the Mexican cartels. The second focuses on the ponderous, naive policies of a newly-appointed American drug czar, played by Michael Douglas, whose daughter just happens to be turning into an addict, and the third centers on a wealthy San Diego housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who struggles to keep her lifestyle after her husband gets arrested by the DEA and umasked as a drug lord.
Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are terrific as DEA agents sticking their fingers in the dike. (The movie points out that once NAFTA takes full effect, Mexican trucks will be able to enter the U.S. as freely as they traverse their own country, and any pretense of halting drugs at the border will be gone).
The movie can be powerful, riveting at times, and its all-encompassing style captures the futility and hypocrisy of America's political posturing about drugs and law enforcement. But it stumbles over the drug- czar plot. Douglas is convincing as a politician over his head, but when his bright, preppie daughter (Erika Christensen) gets drawn into freebasing so that he can see the light, the movie turns clunky, predictable and heavy-handed. But never for long. The end result is a brilliant movie, tossed somewhat off-kilter.
Traffic relentlessly drives its potent message home: as a nation, we are in total denial about our failed drug policies. There's no realistic way drugs can be stopped by conventional law enforcement, or by much-touted new monitoring technologies (planes, satellites, computers, money-laundering databases). There is no widespread system of treatment, nor is there a rational political climate in which truth can be approached. So the druglords get richer and the jails get more overcrowded, and we end up waging a war against ourselves. Beyond that much-needed message, Traffic is also cinematically dazzling -- murky, ragged and colorful; shrouded by intrigue and betrayal, sudden violence and futility.