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Way Down in the Hole

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | September 18, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | September 18, 2009 |

The analysis of Steven Soderbergh’s film and career in general has been a pet project of mine for the past four or five years. His Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight (1998), fueled my desire to not only watch the films of the French New Wave but to study and write about film for a living. His continued oscillation between Hollywood (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) and independent filmmaking (Che, The Girlfriend Experience) was the topic of my B.A. thesis (if you can read Portuguese, you can find a translation published here) and one of my forthcoming contributions to an anthology on his work. Needless to say, I’m more than a little excited for the release of his latest film, The Informant! (2009), this weekend. Gearing up for its release, I went back and watched Traffic (2000), the film that won Soderbergh an Academy Award for best director.

2000 was a big year for Soderbergh. In spring, he released Erin Brockovich, his first box office success since his debut film sex, lies, and videotape (1989). A string of box office and critical failures had quickly derailed Soderbergh early in his career, a trend he began to reverse with Out of Sight and The Limey (1999) and would be fully turn around with the one-two punch of Brockovich and Traffic. That potent cinematic combination resulted in an Oscar oddity: both films were nominated for the best picture award (Ridley Scott’s Gladiator would take that trophy) and Soderbergh was given a double nomination for the best director award. Like Michael Curtiz in 1938, Soderbergh was competing with himself for an award. Unlike Curtiz however, Soderbergh did not split the vote, finding himself with a statue in hand by the end of the night. Obviously, the turn of events was quite an achievement for Soderbergh who, only a few years previously, was directing a stage play in Baton Rouge that few people attended. He would continue his success by placing his faith in the formula that I’ve coined “twin cinema” (others have dubbed it “Indiewood”). Essentially, Soderbergh began to bring indie film sensibilities to Hollywood productions and vice versa. The results, as the trend continued, were sometimes mixed. For instance, Full Frontal (2002) and The Good German (2006) were intriguing misfires while Solaris (2002) and Che (2009) were dazzling in every sense of the word. Traffic is significant because it not only marks the beginning of the twin cinema trend in Soderbergh’s career but also serves as one of its most potent examples.

The film, for those who have not seen it, is best described as an analysis of the United States war on drugs from a variety of perspectives. Essentially, the film has three storylines that intersect with one another while complicating the ideological viewpoints expressed. In the first of the film’s three intertwining stories, two Mexican police officers, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sachez (Jacob Vargas), are on the trail of drug runners working out of Tijuana when they discover their orders are really being brought and bought by a rival cartel. The second story follows Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio judge recently appointed head of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control. Wakefield tries to bring a fresh batch of tactics to the drug war but finds he is ultimately incapable of keeping his own daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), from freebasing cocaine. The film’s third story focuses on two Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán), as they take down San Diego drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), uprooting his wealthy family and pushing his pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to extremes in the process.

While screenwriter Steven Gaghan’s plot could have easily folded under its narrative layers and political complexities, both he and Soderbergh are able to render the bleak and complicated canvas of the drug war in a completely comprehendible fashion. To help make the narrative legible, Soderbergh, acting as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), color-codes the three storylines: Mexico is photographed in washed out, yellow tones; Wakefield’s story is shot with an icy blue filter, and San Diego is shot warmly. Soderbergh’s camera style, while engaging in a vérité aesthetic and is often hand-held, keeps spatial relationships clear. When Helena is driving through San Diego, we notice a pan of the camera, showing Javier entering a nearby bar. The pan and tint of the scenes inform us that Javier is in San Diego, his storyline is beginning to intersect, albeit indirectly, with Helena’s. Unlike most Hollywood films, the main characters and stars of Traffic may not share a scene or a dialogue together, but they inhabit the same space. Think about how risky it was, from a production standpoint, to put the recently married Zeta-Jones and Douglas in a film together in which they don’t even share a scene!

Yet, despite Soderbergh and the film’s risk taking venture in dealing with the cinematically unfriendly topic of drugs in an unconventional fashion, Traffic is, for better and for worse, the product of industrial compromise. For instance, USA Films allowed Soderbergh to leave the Mexican storyline in its native language of Spanish if he revised the character of Javier. In Gaghan’s original draft, Javier was a larger-than-life villain. In the finished film, he serves as the story’s moral compass. Granted, Javier is brilliantly played by Benicio Del Toro and his best support actor award was well deserved. Yet, can you imagine the ideological and moral ambiguities the film would produce if Javier weren’t a knight in shining armor?

My thoughts and opinions towards Traffic have evolved throughout the past nine years. When I saw the film during its theatrical release, I was a junior in high school. I felt intellectually stimulated by the film’s political study of drug trafficking and transfixed by Soderbergh’s use of film style and structure to weave the film’s storylines together. Re-watching it while writing my thesis, grasping a firmer context of film history, theory, and studying the film’s production context, my opinions changed significantly. The film’s moralizing bothered me. The only main character seen frequently using drugs, Caroline, is often associated with other immoral and illegal actions, most notably promiscuous sexual activity. This is comes to the foreground during the first scene featuring Caroline as she is introduced to freebasing and, as after finishing her first hit, begins kissing her friend Seth (Topher Grace). Caroline’s drug use and sexual activity become more and more intertwined as the film progresses, eventually resulting in her prostituting herself to both a drug dealer and a businessman.

Drug use is also represented in the film as a gateway to other immoral and illegal actions. At a party in which Seth and Caroline are snorting cocaine, they are also seen drinking and, later, driving. Now, without attempting to argue against the fact that drug use does result in other actions, often immoral and illegal, there are many people that use drugs and do not fall into the stereotype that Soderbergh and Gaghan depict within the film. Granted, while the film deals with “harder” drugs such as heroin and cocaine specifically, it lacks a perspective of a recreational drug user who does not fall into this clichéd representation. James Mottram evaluates the film rather frankly in The Sundance Kids writing, “Traffic is undeniably a film from a white, western, middle-class point of view…Caroline…descends into depravity in three easy moves…Soft drugs lead to hard drugs, in what must be the most morally unambiguous film of Soderbergh’s career. Little wonder it fared so well with the Academy.”

While I think Mottram is a bit harsh in his criticism, Traffic does moralize, much like the other drug film of 2000, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Yet, unlike Aronofsky’s film, Traffic carries a strong indictment of the United States’ policies towards drug use and trafficking. There are several moments within the film in which characters debate the futility of the drug war. For instance, when Wakefield meets his predecessor, Ralph Landry (James Brolin), Landry tells Wakefield that he’s “not sure [he] made the slightest difference.” A second scene, focusing around a conversation that newly arrested drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) has with his arresting officer Gordon, underlines this futility:

RUIZ: Can’t you for a second imagine none of this had happened? That my drugs had gone through. What would have been the harm? A few people get high who are getting high anyway. Your partner is still alive. We avoid having breakfast together. Don’t you see this means nothing? That your whole life is pointless?
GORDON: You’re breaking my heart.
RUIZ: The worst thing about you, Monty, is you realize the futility of what you’re doing and you do it anyway. I wish you could see how transparent you are…You only got to me because you were tipped off by the Juarez Cartel, who’s trying to break into Tijuana. You’re helping them. You work for a drug dealer too, Monty.

One of the less-mainstream aspects of the film is this ambiguous approach to the drug war. The film, both to its benefit and, arguably, its weakness, refuses to offer any concrete answers to approach the drug problem with. The only sort solution the film can offer up is in Wakefield’s resignation: “If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”

My most recent viewing of Traffic has left me with yet another opinion. Yes, the film moralizes, but it succeeds in addressing a controversial topic in a productive light, providing an ideological parallel to the stylistic and narrative complexities of the film. Does it completely succeed? As much as I admire the film and Soderbergh for making it, I would have to say it gets falls slightly short. Yet, one cannot help but acknowledge that Traffic helped clear the path for stronger and more risky explorations of the drug war, specifically David Simon’s superb HBO series “The Wire” (2002-2008). Thus, while Traffic may moralize, it made use of art to help begin an important political dialogue that continues, without an end in sight, nine years later and that is to be commended.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.

TIFF A Local Perspective | Pajiba Love 09/18/09