Seen today, pre-The Wire, pre-Breaking Bad, even pre-Miss Bala, Traffic looks pretty naïve, but only partly because of its remedial treatment of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade, wherein two aw-shucks American tourists, the ones who learn a hard lesson about auto theft and police corruption, might well be the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate. Presented as muckraking, exposé journo-tainment, designed to astound and frighten audiences who’ve grown numb to the comically proportioned depictions of the same subjects under a Simpson-Bruckheimer Hollywood, Gaghan’s script makes disproportionate hay about the tendrils of dangerous narcotics reaching even as far as the privileged class, thus short-selling the material’s potential relatability factor for a wider, non-prep-school-bred viewership. Often admired for his even, at times subdued, hand in melodrama, Soderbergh’s direction often proves too neutral to give an alibi for Gaghan’s callous scripting. No quantity of blue tinting can rescue the Erika Christensen “Reefer Madness” subplot, nor Catherine Zeta-Jones’s rich-bitch-turned-felon-trafficker, who was caricatured in the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty (by Zeta-Jones herself, no less) and laid to rest on Showtime’s Weeds. Even when the movie is supposed to quietly observe the way Michael Douglas’s government man is an addict, too, albeit in a socially approved manner, the pages of his story are a little too dog-eared, a little too heavily highlighted, to count as archetypal.
Wisely, Soderbergh displays a great deal of respect for an actor’s space, holding a shot long enough to capture the full measure of an expression or pirouette, as when del Toro lights a cigarette for Clifton Collins Jr. in a gay bar, then coquettishly blows out the match. He also enjoys giving actors scenes of nothing, like the beltway cocktail party that sees Douglas slowly drown himself in scotch in order to fortify himself against the greedy inanities of D.C. power brokers (some of them real), or when Luis Guzmán casually cons DEA partner Don Cheadle out of 10 bucks while the two are holed up in a stakeout van, or how the deliriously foppish Topher Grace feigns righteous indignation in the face of Douglas’s racial presumptuousness.
Merging the dry, elliptical style of then-recent critical darlings The Limey and Out of Sight with the production values of a much larger, more classically studio-sanctioned structure, Traffic, in retrospect, seems to anticipate the New Seriousness, a post-millennial repackaging of old storytelling modes that’s hard to quantify, but appears to inform everything from Michael Clayton and The Hurt Locker to blockbusters such as The Dark Knight. This strain of mature-seeming Hollywood drama has its roots in Michael Mann’s The Insider, with its shrewd indirectness and replacement of traditional components, such as Actor’s Studio-derived shouting and pushy close-ups, with telephoto-shot scenes and whispered or muttered dialogue, among other devices: handheld camera, high-contrast lighting, a certain preoccupation either with quality wood furniture and good whiskey or the scuffling sound of footfalls on dirty warehouse concrete, where gunshots are “too loud” and car accidents seem to take place in real time. The larger arc of Traffic’s genealogy, of course, links it to the original U.K. series, which aired in 1989—the irony being that the BBC and Channel 4 had been doing the New Seriousness for ages.
For all its weaknesses, the film acquires artistic heft whenever Soderbergh backs away from the statement-making tendencies of Gaghan’s script. Usually this is done through the vehicle of crosscutting between the three main narrative threads: the trophy wife who takes over her incarcerated husband’s business in order to keep her family safe and her assets liquid; the newly appointed American drug czar whose daughter happens to be a junkie; a Mexican cop who emerges quietly victorious following a brush with the most abysmal depths of his country’s criminal empire. Utilizing the services of Stephen Mirrione (one of Hollywood’s most brilliant cutters; he deserved the Oscar he won for this film), Soderbergh takes the parallel out of parallel editing, choosing instead to deflate anything that might resemble Screenwriting 101 pathology or lazy mirroring, i.e. the bane of multi-strand narratives.
If Traffic can be said to have smuggled anything else into American movies, there’s an oddly un-Soderberghian, hectoring tone; the director seems to have tried to scale back on audience-flagellation in similar, subsequent works such as K Street and Contagion, which paints the picture of Traffic, following a decade-plus of the filmmaker accumulating creative clout, as his society debut, somewhat forgivable in its naked fumbling for the approval of Hollywood’s elders. Perhaps it’s the case that whatever British television does to come across as authoritative and legitimate, carries the danger of seeming mealy mouthed and crude in American hands, however well-intentioned. None of this seemed to matter to Oscar voters, however, as they were so taken by Soderbergh’s double triumph in 2000 that he became the first director since 1938 to be nominated for two separate films in the same year. Guessing correctly that one more return to the well would pay off, Gaghan would sorta-remake Traffic five years later with Syriana, supplanting the drug trade with global politics, capitalism, and terrorism. Not exactly the 3D craze, the New Seriousness has nevertheless created its own bulwark in the American cinema, cemented in large part thanks to Soderbergh’s infiltration.
Sounds great and looks even better, even if surveying Traffic’s image means addressing unconventional choices made in designing the film’s look. As he had done once before with Schizopolis, and would do for every subsequent project, Steven Soderbergh was his own DP, in many cases even operating the camera himself. Traffic’s most recognizable visual trait, of course, is the color-coded tints that were applied in post-production: washed-out, jaundiced goldenrod for Benicio del Toro’s plot, smoky blue for Michael Douglas/Erika Christensen, none for Catherine Zeta-Jones. To varying degrees, the film’s frame is full of dancing golf balls of grain, and Criterion’s transfer is highly attentive to the photographic imperfections, the artisanal crudeness, of each exposure. Contrasts are as precise as woodcuts, even in the most challenging situations, and I could detect no interlacing. The soundtrack is quietly underpinned by Cliff Martinez’s unassuming yet atmospheric score (a Soderbergh collaborator from way back, Martinez would go on to score Solaris and Contagion), while Gaghan’s talky script is clearly delineated and backed by solid bass levels. The picture and sound were supervised and approved by Soderbergh, as well as Larry Blake, the film’s supervising sound editor and rerecording sound mixer.
A full complement, ported over from Criterion’s 2002 DVD release. Over a half dozen producers and creatives, including Soderbergh, contribute to three audio commentaries, poring over every last detail of inspiration and production backstory; you could not want for more context. The single Blu-ray disc is also furnished with an array of instructive supplements, including three demonstration videos (color processing for the Mexico sequences, editing, and sound editing), and a host of extras, from deleted scenes, trailers, and "U.S. Customs" trading cards. The booklet reprints the 2002 essay by critic Manohla Dargis, and gives the viewer the option to watch the film either in 5.1 or 2.0 surround sound.
The primetime debut of one of Criterion’s indies-in-residence, Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drug war epic gets a terrific HD upgrade.