Taking on yet another of 2000’s year-end films, here’s guest writer Anthony Manganaro with a short-and-sweet take on Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble film Traffic.
As a kid I liked Traffic because, unlike most movies I’d seen, this one had weird colors. By that I mean the camera lens changed its tints whenever characters were in different locations — yellowish for Mexico, blueish for Ohio, and a strangely normalish glow for the California scenes in which Catherine Zeta-Jones was most famously seen in the trailers anyway running ape-wild out of her mansion because her husband, a character that goes by the name of Carl, is handcuffed by the DEA for suspected leadership in drug trafficking.
It’s a complicated movie. We learn that Carl is the leader of this drug ring because his friend and partner, Eduardo Ruiz, was suspected in the scene pictured below by Ray and Montel (cops played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) when Eduardo flees the interview for good reason after multiple men with big guns interrupt Ray’s casual jokes about penises in order to sedate the humorless Eduardo, and from there the movie cuts to various hand-held angles of San Diego, Columbus, Tijuana, and occasionally other places as we meet the next two dozen characters. Traffic is a lot like The Wire (2002-2007), HBO’s epic series which prompted its creator to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant, in that it blurs every border imaginable in telling an incredibly large story that is specifically about the difficulty of categorization and the failure of creating simplistic solutions to complex problems involving lots, and lots of people. After ten years the movie reminds me less about “colors” and more about the more pressing concern related to David Simon’s quote about The Wire, that the series is specifically about “the failure of institutions.”
In this case that failure is centered around the drug trafficking trade between the border towns of Tijuana and San Diego, and the occasionally parallel storylines that run between the nations’ futile attempts to placate the distribution of heroine, coke, and the inevitable murders which run alongside them. One such parallel is Ray and Montel contrasted with Mexico’s two-man cop-team, Javier and Manolo, who in sum make up the only likeable characters in the movie, probably because their laid-back humor is refreshing when seen alongside the tense soberness and seriousness of Drug Czar Robert Wakefield and his family, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s recently collapsed family ring, and Eduard Ruiz.
But then quite suddenly, one cop from each team is murdered at the midway point — Manolo is shot in the head by officials from General Arturo Salazar’s corrupt team, while Ray is mistakenly blown up in a car bomb intended for someone else, the movie’s best scene — and at that point, the film deepens as both Montel and Javier find themselves without a partner and, especially in Javier’s case, in a place of absurd searching about rights and wrongs within corrupt systems of power which he is now crucially involved in. Benicio Del Toro, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Javier, is last seen watching ten-year-olds play baseball in a public park at nighttime because it makes him happy to watch children innocently compete. The irony of this frankly genius ending is that in order for Javier to receive compensation for giving out harmful information, he was asked what he wanted in return, and he simply asked for stadium lights so that children could play “the baseball” at night, so, in essence, Javier’s idea of pastoral innocence (what psychologically gets him away from the brutal reality of his business) is also simultaneously funded by the drug trade. If that seems ironic, so does the entire movie; the film is not so much a critique of trafficking so much as a sober reflection upon its realities — what it does and doesn’t do, and, as it turns out, it does a lot. In its wake, nearly a third of the main characters are murdered, including Arnie (Dennis Quaid), a nice-guy friend of Carl’s who is suspected of wanting to sleep with Catherine Zeta-Jones after having taken advantage of Carl’s expected jail time (all suspicions, though perhaps true; the point is that everybody, even at far distances, is affected).
The film is, like The Wire, tragic in its cyclical nature of corruption and murder, and a brutal, realistic reflection upon human nature seen through the raw hand-held technique (which director Stephen Soderbergh employed himself); Soderbergh, who hasn’t really made an impressive movie since, rightly won Best Director for this try (and helped Stephen Gaghan win Best Adapted Screenplay), and the use of “colors” to highlight different locales was probably only a way to make the movie less complicated in its slew of characters with fast, effective transitions which moves so quickly it’s difficult to pin down what’s really happening. The movie has been mimicked to ill effect by some other movies this decade, although Syriana (2005) and Babel (2006) are both impressive as well.