It's been quite a year for Steven Soderbergh. He directed the year's first big critically acclaimed smash hit, "Erin Brockovich" and ended it (quite literally as this was one of those movies that open in New York and Los Angeles on the last weekend of the year so it can qualify for the Oscars, and still be playing while nominations are being taken) with the highly praised drug war epic, "Traffic."
That would seem like an amazing stretch for one guy, and indeed Soderbergh has shown a versatility that compares with the late great Howard Hawks, who from the 30s through the 60s conquered nearly every movie genre with greats ranging from "Bringing up Baby," to "Scarface," from "Red River" and "Rio Bravo," to "Sergeant York" and "The Big Sleep."
Soderbergh's own career began with an art house talky character study, "Sex, Lies and Videotape," then progressed to the superb Depression era coming of age film, "King of the Hill," and has included great crime movies like "Out of Sight" and "The Limey." Now he's shown his range all in one year.
But there are also similarities between "Erin" and "Traffic" that show qualities that set Soderbergh apart. The first is, that though he is a director with some claim to artiness, his first attention, like Hitchcock, is to telling his story.
Second, both "Erin" and "Traffic" are movies that have political implications, but unlike most Hollywood types, Soderbergh keeps his focus on the personal, and never lapses into hysteria, or posits that America is a rotten place because a flaw is uncovered that makes this country something less than Liberal Utopia.
"Traffic" takes a wide ranging and hard headed look at America's drug war by weaving together three stories. In one, Michael Douglas plays a tough on crime judge who is appointed the new Drug Czar, but is horrified to learn that his real challenge is closer to home-- rather AT home. His seemingly perfect daughter (Erica Christensen) is on a rapid downward spiral as she freebases cocaine.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, plays another upper class person whose life unravels, as she discovers that her husband (Stephen Bauer) is arrested as a major cocaine dealer. Pregnant (in real life, too, this was filmed while she and husband Michael Douglas were expecting their first child) and desperate, she becomes, with the manipulations of her husband's attorney (slimily played by Dennis Quaid) the true head of the family business. Her first priority is to eliminate the chief witness against her husband (Miguel Ferrer) who is being guarded by two DEA agents, (charismatically played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman).
The other story plays out on the other side of the border, where a Mexican cop played by Benicio Del Toro, struggles to do the right thing in a swamp of corruption where virtuousness is a threat to all the competing sides. His subtle manipulations and dogged determination to do the right thing without attracting attention is the high point in a film filled with memorable moments.
Soderbergh deftly directs "Traffic," keeping things moving with nary a jam. If anything, this 2 and 1/2 hour movie would be even better if it were half an hour longer and able to fully develop some of the plots.
All of the actors shine, and besides Del Toro, who is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, Cheadle's dedicated agent, the glowingly pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones, and young Erica Christensen stand out from the crowd.
While the movie occasionally lapses into preachiness-- audiences might exclaim, "What is this, Larry King Live?" long before Cheadle does-- and has a few only-in-Hollywood moments like Douglas's final press conference, it avoids the fatal trap that Serious Films often fall into. There is no moral equivalence here. "Traffic" doesn't question who the good guys are, it merely asks whether they are DOING any good.
The film's tough message about the effects of drugs may make this a film that parents will want adolescents to see. Be warned, however, that it is very explicit in its examination of the degradations from addiction, and when a teenage daughter slides into prostitution as a way of supporting her habit, it is hardly sexy, but the sex is very explict. So be warned.
The movie undoubtedly is tougher on the interdiction side than the treatment argument, but no matter where one comes down, it's hard to dismiss the problems presented in "Traffic." Ultimately, this movie asserts forcefully and convincingly, the drug problem is a family problem, and one that can only be solved through individual redemption.