Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Oliver Stone's Savages finds a filmmaker who was once a great stylist hunting for meaning in his career by telling us a grandiose tale of people involved in the drug industry. Let's flip that around, and take a look at the mainstream breakthrough for a director who proved how important of a stylist he'd eventually become with his own take on the same subject.
Traffic: its weird place of pride as one of the most broadly successful Steven Soderbergh films despite being in several key ways no more populist than most of what he's done in his career; its historical importance as the movie primarily responsible for kickstarting the so-called hyperlink stories that were popular for a long chunk of the 2000s; how very much the precise story it tells about the War on Drugs in the United States feels like it could only have come from a short window around the turn of the century (the film premiered in the last week of 2000, almost exactly the most perfect time for it). I chose to begin with an irony: nowadays, Soderbergh is notable for being the most innovative and aggressive booster of digital cinematography in mainstream American cinema, but twelve years ago, Traffic was at least in part a deliberate exercise in showcasing the limitations of digital filmmaking. A successful exercise, too, for I myself have now seen the movie on DVDs released by two different companies, as well as a theoretically unimprovable Blu-Ray, and none of those viewing experiences have come within striking distance of capturing what it was like to see the movie projected on film. This necessarily, for me, means that Traffic has never worked as well for me as it did that very first time, though unlike a lot movies from around that same period that I've cooled towards in the intervening decade, I'm not prepared to entirely blame a 19-year-old's unfocused enthusiasm for making Traffic seem better than it "really" is; I suppose that if a nice and pristine 35mm print ever made the rounds again (as if...), the movie would hold up just as well as it does in my inflated memories.
This might all sound deranged; but so much of the impact of Traffic, even in its compromised home viewing state, comes from the modulation of its imagery, that anything but a perfect version of that imagery necessarily means that the film can't have quite its maximum impact. Not for nothing is Traffic the first "major" Soderbergh film for which the director himself served as cinematographer under the name Peter Andrews (he has shot every one of his own films since; prior to this, he'd only lensed Schizopolis in 1996, uncredited - but, of course, the entire cast and crew of Schizopolis went uncredited), for Traffic is a movie in which the texture of the visuals have as much to do with the story as anything said or done by any of the characters.
Adapted from the 1989 British television series Traffik by Stephen Gaghan, is About Drugs; like the megalathic HBO masterpiece The Wire, the individual lives depicted within are all well and good but the overall effect of the movie is not to tell us any small human stories but to illustrate the drug trade in its totality, those who sell, those who use, those who attempt to stop it. So, while it is divided into three discrete narrative clusters that bleed into one another slightly at the edges, anchored by four more-or-less main characters, those characters are essentially archetypes, drawn with just enough specificity that they play as personalities rather than metaphors. They matter because of what they say about Drugs In The World, not because they matter. I do not count this as a criticism of the movie.
The three threads, in the order that they are introduced, take place in Tijuana, Mexico, where a pair of cops, Javier Rodríguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) are hired by government officer Gen. Arturo Salzar (Tomas Milian) to help him break the back of the Obregón cartel that runs the town's drug traffic; they only realise by inches that Salazar is more interested in taking over the cartel than eradicating it. Then, in between Washington, D.C. and the Cincinnati, OH, suburb Indian Hill, we are introduced to Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a ruthless anti-drug judge who has just been tapped as the president's new drug czar; his enthusiasm to finally win the War on Drugs is damaged when he's told by just about everybody that the War on Drugs hasn't been winnable in a very long time, and even fighting to a stalemate is impossible. Also, he finds out right about now that his 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a drug addict, and his authoritarian attempts to crack down on her behavior serve only to intensify her habit. Finally, in San Diego, CA, we meet DEA officer Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and his partner Ray Castro (Luís Guzmán), in the act of apprehending high-level dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer); when he offers to turn informant in exchange for immunity, they're able to arrest the area's chief drug lord, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). This plotline is shared with the story of Ayala's wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had no idea that her husband's fortune came from drug trafficking, and who is forced to make increasingly bloody-minded choices in order to maintain her quality of life.
As a helpful guide for us as we wander through this morass (the shooting script features 135 speaking parts in 163 pages), Soderbergh visually codes everything, and this is where Traffic goes from being a fascinatingly messy story to an actual minor American masterpiece: the Mexico scenes are handheld, drenched in a sick piss-yellow so dominant that the scenes are effectively monocromatic; Robert Wakefield's story is primarily in chilly shades of blue or blue-tinged color, with lots of hard key lighting; the DEA half of the San Diego plot is harshly over-saturated while the Helena Ayala half is muted, but both of them are slightly over-exposed with as much bright natural light as can be brought to bear. The Wakefield segments are the only ones that survived into the digital realm mostly intact; the Mexico scenes have a sweaty, dirty physicality and the San Diego scenes a sever metallic sharpness in 35mm that just doesn't make it, but I promise not to bitch about that any more. The important point is that, in addition to helping us sort one plot from the next, this palette gives an immediate emotional kick to the footage: the Mexico scenes read as hot and weary, the Wakefield scenes as clipped and emotionally severe, the San Diego scenes as intense and focused on surface appearances.
Of course, this was not the first nor the last Soderbergh movie to have color coding; it's almost as prominent (and arguably, more necessary) in The Limey, and we can still see it in a subtler form in works as new as Haywire and Magic Mike. What Traffic has that none of those movies have is an operatic, scope; the use of color here is like the shading in which different melodies are played by different sections of an orchestra, as much or more as it is like the graphic experimentation of some of Soderbergh's more overtly experimental narratives. Color drives plot, emotion, and character; it makes Traffic perhaps the single most visually striking major American film of the year 2000; it is part of what saves Gaghan's script (developed, admittedly, with considerable input from the director) from being as much a messagey Issues Picture as it sometimes wants to be - among the film's producers, we find a certain Edward Zwick, and at it's worst moments (nearly all of them involving Wakefield or his daughter), it feels powerful Zwickian, and we do not hold that to be a good trait in these parts.
It's not absolutely consistent: there are scenes in the Wakefield storyline that feel like they should be much bluer than they are, given the apparent "rules" of the movie. But then again, the Wakefield storyline is much the film's weak link, anyway.
Aye, Traffic, for all that I would take a bullet for the cinematography, and for all that I think Soderbergh's directing Oscar is one of the best given out in that category in the last couple of decades, and for all that it is the high-water mark of his acceptance by the Hollywood establishment - for all that, I say, Traffic is a movie with problems, and some of them are pretty severe. The Wakefield plot is chief among them: as much as the film claims to have no answers and goes out of its way to simply depict and not editorialise, the story of the drug czar and his strung-out daughter is wildly over-the-top, and it gets worse and worse as it goes on, coming off very much like one of those crazy anti-drug exploitation movies (typified by the infamous Reefer Madness), except that it's directed to be low key and entirely non-exploitative. But that Caroline Wakefield can't just use drugs, she has to be some kind of bottomed-out worst-case-scenario cocaine whore, that's melodramatic in all the wrong ways.
The only other pervasive and damning problem I have with the film is the somewhat offhand ways it reduces Mexico to every white middle-class person's nightmare fantasy: heat and sand and murder squads. It's not a knock against Soderbergh's storytelling ability - the Mexico plot is readily my favorite of the three - but there's a significant lack of nuance here that contrasts poorly with the far more conflicted moral greyness of the other sequences.
Which leaves the merely petty and sniping problems, like the fact that Traffic is a victim of its own success; it was the second movie in 2000, after Amores perros - thus the first Hollywood movie, and that is significant here - to use the "huge cast, interlinked stories" trick that would in short time become unbearably overused and bland. By no means is it fair to blame Traffic for the sins of e.g. Babel, but the fact remains that Babel exists; and what seemed fresh and exciting and dare I say revolutionary in 2000 does not seem that way nearly so much in 2012; nor does it help that Soderbergh himself made basically the exact same movie in 2011, with Contagion - down to the same editor, Steven Mirrione, and the same composer, Cliff Martinez, both of whom contribute an almost incalcuable amount to the tension and shape of both films - with "Disease Is An Important World Issue" subbing in for "Drugs Are An Important World Issue", and a little of the seriousness giving way to thriller mechanics. My point being: Traffic simply isn't sexy any more, and that makes it a little easier to pull at the missteps and the places where the plot is a bit too loopy, and to really stare down just how much better a job the British Traffik did of telling the story, with more space to do it in.
Which isn't to say that Traffic isn't a fantastic motion picture, because it damn well is: the first time Soderbergh worked with an all-star cast, and my God, but he got great things out of virtually everybody: the banter between Cheadle and Guzmán is priceless, it's the last time that Michael Douglas tried to do anything even remotely interesting, it's one of the only genuinely complex performances in Zeta-Jones's career, it made Del Toro a household name in the States; shit, even Topher Grace is pretty fantastic in his feature debut, as a wheedling little snot who spouts bullshit sociology as a defense mechanism (it says something, I think, that the only performances where I can completely stand Grace are in Soderbergh movies: this, and his cameos in the Ocean's films). It's not as extensive an experiment in movie star manipulation as much of his later work; it's probably not even as interesting in that regard as his Julia Roberts star vehicle from earlier in 2000, Erin Brockovich. But as a sort of dry run for the actor-juggling that would make Ocean's Eleven such a bubblegum masterpiece, it's hard to fault it.
That's it, right there: it's hard to fault it. There is so fucking much good movie in Traffic, and not that much wrong - I would, in my happiest place, snatch out all the Wakefield plot, leaving the much more streamlined Mexico and San Diego threads, building to far more insinuating tension than they already, and there is some considerable tension in the endgame of the San Diego plot, but even the Wakefield plot has its compensations. I simply can't help but think that everything great about it is even better somewhere else in Soderbergh's filmography. Is that a slam on the movie? No, of course not. It makes it a little masterpiece, at best, but for any other filmmaker, this would be a career highlight, while it's also easy to see how most other filmmakers would turn it into a dull, obvious harangue. Zwick's name is right there in the credits. For keeping the material as urgent and un-sensational as he does, this is still about as unmatchable a demonstration of how good the director in his "one for the studios" mode could be, and proof that even when he was working with a Very Serious Oscarbait scero, "one for the studios" still involved a whole lot of personal insight and elevation of the material to something far more special than it had to be.