The Invisible and Visible
by Taunya Lovell Banks
Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh's Oscar nominated
film, is a disturbing blend of fiction and reality with a semi-documentary
feel. Structurally interesting, its multiple discrete plots occasionally
intersect in interesting and almost casual ways somewhat reminiscent
of the overlapping stories in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red
(1994). Also interesting is the cinematography with its very
grainy, high contrast shaky video camera scenes of Mexico and
the shift to a sleeker crisper camera look for the United States
scenes. These camera tricks betray the film's rather imperialistic
perspective. Corrupt government officials only seem to live south
of the U.S. border.
Billed as a realistic examination
of the drug problem, Traffic raises no new issues, and
provides no new insights or strategies. Perhaps, that is Soderbergh's
point. There is nothing new under the sun-the issue is old, and
the solutions are obvious. Midway through the film there is a
somewhat surreal scene of political party in Georgetown where
Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), the fictional federal "Drug
Czar," gets advice on fighting the drug war from real-life
politicians. Fiction and reality blur as we see Wakefield talking
with Senators Barbara Boxer, Orrin G. Hatch, Charles Grassley,
Don Nickles and Harry Reid (III). They are joined by former Massachusetts
State Governor, Bill Weld. Are their comments or appearances
in the film intended as campaign ads? Even Jeff Podolsky, the
onetime arts and entertainment editor for George magazine, playing
himself, has an opinion on the subject. Was his appearance a
plug for the magazine? Sadly, these real-life people come off
as disingenuous distractions.
Just as quickly, the film shifts
back to full fictional mode as Wakefield, shocked (or "awakened")
by the disclosure that his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen)
is using drugs, decides to tour "the front line," the
border where he talks with federal and state officials. Some
critics called these scenes "preachy," but the officials'
comments have a false ring. Wakefield and the public officials,
fake and real, seem to be mouthing some "party line"
that neither he (the actor/character) nor his conversationalists
really believe. The only question is what party, a question Traffic
never seems to answer.
Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer),
the ill-fated drug smuggler turned federal witness, says, the
United States government, and even the DEA agents, already know
that the war against drugs has been lost. The film audience is
left to wonder why. Are we losing the drug war because there
are so many layers between the really big guys and their market?
Is it because of the enormous amount of money generated by the
At one point early in the film
Monte Gordon (Don Cheadle), the African American DEA agent, tells
his partner, Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), that he wants to get to
the big guys - the white guys. But we never see the white guys
in the film. All the big wealthy dealers are Mexicanos or Mexican-Americans.
Perhaps that is an underlying message in Traffic, the
real powers behind the Mexican-American drug trade are totally
invisible and invincible.
Materialism seems to motivate
most of the characters. Even Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta?Jones),
wife of jailed drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), is transformed
from conventional young wealthy matron to a ruthless drug trafficker.
She does not wish to return to the poverty of her childhood and
will do anything, even contract a killing, to preserve her material
wealth. Initially unaware of her husband's real business, Helena
overcomes her revulsion quite quickly to take control of her
imprisoned husband's business.
The film even attributes economic
motivation to the small time African American dealers. Seth Abrahams
(Topher Grace), Caroline Wakefield's school mate and drug procurer,
tells Wakefield, that the drug traffic prospers in African American
communities because street corner dealers can make $500 in two
hours selling drugs to upper class whites like himself. This
is a hollow effort to relate to African Americans. What the audience
does not see is the grim life of these dealers, portrayed so
vividly in the television production of David Simon's and Edward
Burn's book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City
If Traffic is truly
a comprehensive story about the futility of drug war, Wakefield's
journey into a drug infested African American community in search
of his daughter is a missed opportunity to tell the story from
that community's perspective. Instead, Wakefield enters and leaves
the neighbor with the same blinders, his only concern is Caroline.
In Traffic Soderbergh's primary point is that drugs are
a problem in Middle America not just in African American or poor
The narrative perspective throughout
is definitely upper class mid western WASP. Caroline Wakefield
is an attractive and popular clean-cut looking blond high schooler.
Looks are deceiving, because this straight "A" private
school attending all-American girl is a hard-core druggie. Strangely,
she never gets that hard-core haggard drug addicted look, perhaps
she hasn't been addicted long enough. Caroline looks rosy and
even angelic when her father finds her strung out and prostituting
herself. Who is in denial in this film, Caroline's mother (Amy
Irving) or the director. Despite Caroline's escape from her first
bout with drug rehab, we are made to believe that she is recovering
with the help of her loving and supportive parents. Many members
of the viewing audience, mindful of the high relapse rates, may
not be convinced that there is at least one "happy ending"
in this otherwise dark film. Once Caroline's somewhat estranged
parents (and the family) are reconciled, everything will work
out fine-more denial? In this sense Traffic is a very
Perhaps the most complex character
in the film is Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro),
the Tijuana police officer. Most reviewers characterize him as
a honest, self-sacrificing, hard working, but poorly paid Mexican
law enforcement official. All he asks in return for information
about the Tijuana drug cartel is a lighted baseball field for
his community. But is the audience being deceived? The final
scenes of Traffic have Rodriguez riding to intercept a
plane load of drugs and approving of Salazar's demise are ambiguous.
Rodriguez seems to have moved from a lowly position to one of
some authority. An optimistic take is that Rodriguez really is
the honest hard-working Mexican counterpart of Monte Gordon.
Both persist in fighting what may be a hopeless war. They are
the little guys fighting the invisible giant.
Traffic suggests that the drug war must be
fought at both the real top, as well as the real bottom-drug
users, not the false bottom of drug dealers. Rather than imprisoning
drug users, we need to remove the reasons to try drugs and provide
alternate activities and values. Perhaps that is Soderbergh's
Posted February 7, 2002