A noted and respected U.S. Federal Judge (Michael Douglas) is appointed the next Drug Czar by the President, the man intent on succeeding in the war on drugs where others, including his military-minded predecessor, have failed. Unbeknownst to him, his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) has begun her descent into becoming a habitual user, bringing the full impact of the drug problem right to the judge’s own front door.
A pair of ambitious DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest a Los Angeles professional (Miguel Ferrer) for selling drugs and are subsequently led by him to the house of locally respected businessman (Steven Bauer) who happens to be the area’s biggest supplier of product with ties to the cartels in Mexico. His pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is thunderstruck by this revelation, ultimately proving to be far more amenable to pushing the boundaries of the law and to getting her hands dirty than those around her, including the family’s unscrupulous lawyer (Dennis Quaid), ever would have originally realized.
Working the wilds of Tijuana, a Mexican cop (Best Supporting Actor Academy Award-winner Benicio del Toro) is becoming fed up with the futility of his job in trying to control the drug trade leaving his country for the United States. He contemplates making a deal with DEA even though he knows that by doing so he’ll put his life in jeopardy from both the cartels as well as members of his own police force.
The tagline for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, a stripped-down steely-eyed remake of the BBC miniseries Traffik, says that “No one gets away clean,” and the truth of that statement is felt in nearly every frame of the finished film. This movie is a mesmerizing, multilayered revelation that assaults the senses and pushes the intellect in ways that evolve and mutate after ever viewing, and for the life of me I cannot believe I didn’t find a space for this epic masterpiece on my list of the Top 50 Films of 2000-2009.
For a multi-character overlapping 147-minute procedural, Traffic is shockingly precise. It’s internal dynamics are astonishing, even the somewhat incredible moments of happenstance and chance that fuel some of the comings and goings happening between all of the characters end up feeling far more natural and real than the probably should. Even the stuff going on between Douglas, Christensen and an oily Topher Grace comes off better than it probably should, Soderbergh making this aspect of the perplexing puzzle box of users, abusers, pushers and enablers far more honest and genuine than it has any right to be. (I mean, the drug czar’s daughter is morphing into a struggling addict? Yeah, there’s nothing coincidental or unbelievable about that at all.)
While Soderbergh’s stylistic structuring of the film wasn’t exactly original, there is something about the visual realization of the picture that pops and crackles all the same. Each segment is immediately recognizable, and as complicated as things get it’s impossible for the viewer to get lost in everything that is going on. The director shoots things spectacularly (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews), and it’s no surprise so many subsequent filmmakers have borrowed (i.e. stolen) his look in numerous subsequent, and mostly lesser, features.
Del Toro won the Oscar here and was the only actor nominated, but it goes without saying many others – Douglas, Zeta-Jones, Ferrer and Cheadle most notably – could have just as easily walked off with a little golden statue of they’d been given the opportunity. It also goes without saying that Harrison Ford many a gigantic mistake of not filling the role of the judge, and while Douglas is spectacular in the part one can’t help but wonder what Indiana Jones would have made it had he put his salary demands (and ego) in check.
But that little nugget of behind-the-scenes silliness aside, Soderbergh’s casting is exquisite, every role filled by just the right person everyone coming together in a way that borders on astonishing. Every part feels like it’s been thought out all the way through, allowing notable stars like Albert Finney to completely disappear in their relatively small roles in a way that just doesn’t typically happen in multi-tiered dramas like this one.
But the gem is the sterling combination of Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning direction and Steven Gaghan’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Both are perfect, there’s just not another word to describe either facet of the film, and it’s hard to believe something as complex in its analyzing of cryptic minutiae could be this beautifully understandable. There are layers upon layers within even more layers in this film yet all end up being as clear as day, and while the point of view presented is hardly revelatory that doesn’t make it any less engrossing.
In the end, Traffic is even more prescient and indelible today than it was a little over a decade ago when it was originally released. Soderbergh and Gaghan’s treatise on the drug problem is multifaceted and honest, talking about the futility of the solutions presented to fix an unfixable problem that has stunningly not changed very much in the time the film was made. You look at the current state of the war on drugs, the way cartels are ruling over segments of Mexico, the way States are battling the problem by trying to legalize medical marijuana yet while also facing budgetary cuts to social services at the same time, all of it makes the case presented within the picture even more crystal clear. Traffic is a masterwork from a visionary director who has made his career pushing boundaries in films both independently personal and studio financed, and as such is an instant classic that should be a part of any cinephile’s personal library.
Traffic is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 1080p 1.78:1 transfer. As stated in the included booklet: “Traffic is presented in the director's preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm interpositive. At the request of the director, the English subtitles for the Spanish sequences are presented as they were on U.S. film prints, rather than as optional subtitles. Both the full 5.1 theatrical soundtrack and the restricted-dynamic-range 2.0 soundtrack were mastered from the original 24-bit print masters.”
Traffic comes to Blu-ray in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and includes optional English SDH subtitles. (Please note, as requested by Soderbergh the subtitles during the Spanish sequence cannot be turned off.) Again, from the included booklet: “At the request of the director, the English subtitles for the Spanish sequences are presented as they were on U.S. film prints rather than as optional subtitles. Both the full 5.1 theatrical soundtrack and the restricted-dynamic-range 2.0 soundtrack were mastered from the original 24-bit master prints.”
Extras here are ported over from the previous DVD release and are so exhausting it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. First off, there are Three Audio Commentaries, all recorded in 2001, featuring director Steven Soderbergh and writer Steven Gaghan on one, producers Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz, and Edward Zwick, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Golden and former DEA chief of intelligence Craig Chretuen on the second and composer Cliff Martinez on the third. All are awesome and worthwhile, each offering up their own bits of information and insights making the movie even more of a fascinating marvel than it already was.
Next up are a collection of 25 Deleted Scenes, all with optional commentary from Soderbergh and Gaghan. It’s just under 30 minutes of material, and just about all of it is incredible and while I agree with the choice to excise almost all of these scenes watching them is a wonderful experience nonetheless.
After that we have the Demonstrations, each of them covering various aspects of the film’s production including Film Processing, Editing and Dialogue Editing. Giving even more insight into the finished film are four scenes included in the Additional Footage section, all of these extended sequences of moments from the actual feature itself. Rounding things our are a collection of Trading Cards produced by the U.S. Customs office as well as Original Theatrical Trailers and Television Spots.
The Blu-ray also comes with an Illustrated Insert featuring an essay on the film by critic Manohla Dargis.
Traffic might just be the best film director Steven Soderbergh has ever made, while Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film – supervised by the filmmaker – borders on extraordinary. This one pretty much gets my highest recommendation there is, and even those who already own the great Criterion DVD are strongly urged to pick this disc up as an upgrade.