John Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law
School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores
or through amazon.com.
- How do you reconcile loyalty
and ideals in a
pervasively corrupt institutional culture?
has shown Gordon and his partner as classic Hollywood "buddies."
Audiences expect one buddy to revenge
the death of
NO ONE COMES OUT
CLEAN IN "TRAFFIC"
Stephen Soderbergh's hit "Traffic" illustrates a
dilemma which confronts all of us at one time or another. Where does
commendable loyalty to the group end and disloyalty to your own ideals
There are four protagonists in "Traffic." First,
Robert Wakefield (Michael
Douglas), the federal judge who is appointed to be the national "drug
czar. The second is Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), who is a
Mexican cop in Tijuana fighting the drug cartels. The third is Helen Ayala
(Catherine Zeta- Jones), who starts the movie as a La Jolla housewife. And
finally there is Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), who is an agent in the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Each is faced with facts which show that his
or her group is at worst corrupt, or at least ineffective in achieving its
Wakefield slowly discovers from personal experience that the much-publicized
"war on drugs" is not being won. His own daughter becomes an
addict and his dealings with her problem finally convince him that the whole
"war" metaphor is misplaced when you are talking about your own
child. She doesn't need a warrior; she needs a father. Wakefield resolves
the tension between the policies promoted by his organization and his own
analysis of what drug addicts need by resigning his prestigious position to
return home to help his daughter. It's not an easy decision because he has
up till then been an outspoken supporter of the old policy; also one
suspects he will pay a political price for his change of heart. Soderbergh
portrays Wakefield as a hero.
Rodriguez faces an even more difficult dilemma. Everywhere he looks he finds
corruption. At first, he and his partner sign up with the forces of the
Mexican drug czar to help him shut down the Tijuana drug cartel. He is a
zealous employee until he discovers that the Mexican drug czar himself is in
the employ of a rival drug cartel. Furthermore, his partner has sold
information to the American DEA, an act which culminates in the partner's
death. How do you reconcile loyalty and ideals in a pervasively corrupt
institutional culture? Forced to make up his own rules, Rodriguez finally
decides to sell the information on the whereabouts of the corrupt Mexican
drug czar to the DEA, but for a price--that the DEA build a new baseball
field for the kids in Tijuana. Still, he feels like a traitor betraying an
employer who has always treated him well. But in the morally compromised
world in which he lives, he's a hero and Soderbergh shows him as such..
Helen Ayala is the pregnant wife of a successful La Jolla business man who
finds out that the husband is a major drug lord. She discovers the truth
when federal agents pull her husband from their home. Her group is the
family, and she has to face the fact that the family is firmly connected
with large-scale criminal activity. She decides to accept the corruption and
fight for her husband's release, even if that requires conspiring to murder
a key witness. Ayala is hardly a hero, but Soderbergh does permit us to
understand her dilemma and her attempt to choose between unpalatable
My problem is with
Soderbergh's portrayal of Montel Gordon. He portrays Gordon as a hero even
though the logic of the movie shows him to be a fool. Unlike the other
protagonists he has no sense of the morally ambiguous climate in which he
operates. The film time and time again insists on the ineffectiveness of the
War on Drugs. Gordon himself is reminded at least twice that any supply he
confiscates is quickly replaced by other smugglers and that this war can't
be won. Still Gordon chooses the path of denial and continues the game of
cops and robbers even after it has resulted in his partner's death. The last
scene of the movie shows Gordon smiling to himself as he leaves the home of
the drug dealer who ordered his partner's death, having planted a bug. The
audience is invited to share in Gordon's anticipation of revenge for his
partner's death, even though his obsessive pursuit of "bad guys"
will certainly do damage to the Fourth Amendment and might well end with
Gordon's own death.
Why does Soderbergh paste on the "smiley face" ending? One
possible is that he shares Gordon's satisfaction that the bug has been
planted and that the War on Drugs will continue, but, as I have indicated,
this is very hard to believe within the structure of the rest of the movie
,which shows that the War on Drugs cannot be won. Another possibility is
that Soderbergh is playing with the audience, allowing us to see through his
happy ending to the film's darker implications. Good art sometimes makes you
work to understand it. I hope that is true, but still cannot dismiss the
possibility of a more cynical explanation. Soderbergh has shown Gordon and
his partner as classic Hollywood "buddies." Audiences expect one
buddy to revenge the death of another. Soderbergh decided to satisfy this
audience expectation, even if it undercut the message of his film.
If the third explanation is the correct one, we must admit that Soderbergh
would not be the first artist to dampen his message to improve his profits.
Preston Sturges did the same thing in the ending of "Sullivan's
Travels" and Shakespeare tacked on an incomprehensible happy ending to
"Measure for Measure." Still it seems a shame. As the
"Traffic" advertisements say, " No one comes out clean."
Least of all the director.