At once a political epic and a radical gesture in personal filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is an unexpected, unlikely triumph. It was a film that Hollywood didn’t want to make—every studio in town turned it down—that went on to secure some of the American movie industry’s highest honors, including four Academy Awards. The film’s nominal subject is the United States’ ongoing, disastrously ineffectual “war against drugs,” and how that war makes casualties of us all. Set in both the United States and in Mexico, it traces the drug trade from distribution to consumption through the lives of some dozen characters, from students to kingpins, from Tijuana street cops to high-placed Washington officials. Along the way, the film lays out the case for fighting the war, even as it also methodically uncovers its hypocrisies and calamitous dead-ends.
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan based his script on a celebrated British 1989 television miniseries called Traffik, which traced the European drug trade from the opium fields of Pakistan to the open veins of British addicts. For his adaptation, Gaghan transposed the story to North America, making his focus the circuit of hard drugs coming out of Mexico and into all corners of the United States. To make this trajectory personal, he created an array of men and women living, lying, hurting, and dying throughout the continent, from the disenfranchised troops of the Mexican police force to the sons and daughters of American privilege. Taken together, the characters limn a complex genealogy of supply and demand, of pure need and bottomless greed, in which no one remains unscathed. Importantly, for the film’s political purposes and for its humanistic undertow, the victims and villains of the drug trade are, from beginning to end, distributed equally on both sides of the border.
Traffic opens in Mexico near the sun-bleached desert not far from California. Undercover policemen Javier Rodriguez and Manolo Sanchez confiscate a truck filled with heroin, but the drugs are seized by General Salazar, a powerful, shadowy government fixer who’s fast positioning himself to become his country’s leading anti-drug cop. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield has just been appointed the nation’s newest drug czar, a position that he embraces with the naiveté of someone who has no idea what the job actually means. Back West, two Drug Enforcement Agents, Ray Castro and Montel Gordon, successfully bust a mid-level trafficker, Eduardo Ruiz, on their way to a bigger catch, drug lord Carlos Ayala, whose wealth has brought him, among other possessions, a beautiful wife, Helena.
With elegant economy, Soderbergh introduces the characters in fast-sketch scenes that at once let us know who they are when the story begins and who they soon will be. In a sprawling mansion in a seemingly cloistered Cincinnati suburb, Wakefield’s 16-year-old daughter, Caroline, an honors student wearing a private school uniform, is introduced to freebasing by her boyfriend, an amoral charmer named Seth. After inhaling the drug, a tear slides down her face and disappears into a blissed-out smile that Seth seals with a kiss. In San Diego, after a lunch of gossip and foie gras at the local country club with a handful of the neighborhood elite, the pregnant Helena glimpses another possible future after her husband is arrested and the family’s assets are frozen. Almost immediately, she is caught between her husband’s associates, who are demanding money she doesn’t have to give, and the DEA, which demands cooperation she doesn’t want to surrender.
In Helena, DEA agents Castro and Gordon find a foe with an almost feral will to survive, just as Wakefield will find an enemy of a different sort in Caroline, though one just as desperate and tenacious. What connects these women together isn’t simply the pulse of their individual stories, but Soderbergh’s intimate, restless camera—he shot the film himself, working under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews—along with the film’s elliptical editing style. Although Traffic unfolds linearly, the sheer number of characters necessitates that the film have a complex architecture; in order to function as a persuasive whole, even characters who never meet work in counterpoint. To that end, scenes don’t simply cut together, they seem to slip and slide against one another emotionally, aesthetically, associatively. The teardrop that glides down Caroline’s face after she freebases is of a distinct piece with the sensuous pleasures indulged by Helena at her ladies’ lunch; for each woman, it is a teardrop that portends a world of sorrows.
Traffic unfolds fast, then faster still as the story shifts rapidly from Tijuana to Washington, D.C., to Castro and Gordon electronically eavesdropping on Helena outside her San Diego estate, then back again to Mexico. A master of narrative, Soderbergh tends to omit as much exposition as he knows the stories can bear; each new scene has to do its own work, contribute its own information to the larger puzzle. In Traffic, this insistence on narrative expediency was abetted by a startling decision to give the three main stories different colors. Employing a range of techniques—shooting without color-correcting filters, for instance—Soderbergh devised a warm, bleached-out ocher for Javier’s Mexico and a vividly opposing icy blue for Wakefield’s D.C. In contrast, the San Diego scenes of cat-and-mouse between the DEA and Helena seem to blossom with lush, vibrant hues that underscore the story’s everyday surrealism. It was a bold aesthetic gambit with a practical dividend: The colors clue you into the action—where you are and with whom—instantaneously.
Soderbergh has said that he doesn’t think Traffic could have been made by a studio, and perhaps he’s right. “It’s an independent film,” he insisted, days before it opened. To look at the film then as now, to consider its dark, foreboding subject and its refusal to offer up either easy explanations for our addiction to drugs or our response to that addiction, is to understand that the proof of that independence is evident in every frame. In one respect, Traffic is essentially about borders and what it means for an individual to cross borders that are legal and geographic, emotional and psychological, real and imagined. For Soderbergh, too, there were other borders to cross—those between independent filmmaking and Hollywood, between maintaining a personal vision and finding a larger audience to value that vision. In the end, the director didn’t just cross those borders—he demolished them, and in the process, confirmed his place as one of the most exciting directors making movies in America today.
Manohla Dargis is co-chief film critic of the New York Times. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2002 DVD edition of Traffic.