Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is a great film, there’s no doubt,

especially when compared to most of the rest of the dross which came

out in the year 2000. I would be very happy if it won the best picture

Oscar it deserves, although I have a hunch it’ll have to make do with

Best Director. But for all its excellence as a piece of cinema, I’m

upset at how it treats the world of drugs.

Traffic was adapted from Traffik, a 1989 Channel 4

miniseries. By necessity, a lot has been lost in the transition from

six hours to 147 minutes: never, for instance, do we see the cultivation

of drug crops or the effect of drugs on the local economies of poor

drug-producing nations. And because there isn’t time to draw out the

individual strands of plot, the interstices between them are reduced

to grating shots where the hand-held camera will pan away from one

character and join another who is moving in the same place but a different


My main problem, however, is not with Soderbergh’s direction, which

is generally first-rate. The overprivileged teenagers’ drug-fuelled

party, for instance, is perfect. (There are gauche missteps, however,

such as the cop realising, too late, that his partner is about to

walk into a booby trap.) What I object to is the way in which a film

which is generally regarded as providing a pinkish “enlightened” attitude

to drugs in fact adheres much more closely to cinematic conventions

than it does to reality.

The prime example of this is the fact that none of the characters

is a street-level drug dealer. We see a few, in the LA ghetto, passing

crack through letterboxes in exchange for crumpled bills, but there’s

no indication that these are real people, with thoughts and feelings

and motives just like the other characters in the film. The Catherine

Zeta-Jones character, for instance, remains sympathetic even as she

takes over her husband’s drug-running operation, personally transports

cocaine across international borders, and even murders people. Yet

the dealers on the street are basically your stereotypical ghetto

blacks, sans even names.

Or look at the drug czar’s daughter, the addict who is responsible

for him breaking off a White House press conference mid-speech and

flying off instead to be with his family. (Er, right. But hey, this

guy I guess is prone to improbable behaviour: the conservative jurist

decides to turn all vigilante on us halfway through, kicking down

doors and looking very mean in stubble and shades.)

Caroline Wakefield is a rich kid who falls so quickly into the quicksand

of drug addiction that within weeks she’s turned to prostitution.

Now this just doesn’t happen. Sure, the character Jennifer Connelley

played in Requiem for a Dream ended up in more or less the

same place, but only at the end of a very long road, and from much

less auspicious beginnings.

What does a rich drug addict do when she needs money? Sell to her

friends, of course. But that would turn Caroline Wakefield from victim

into Evil Scourge of Society. Selling her body harms only her; selling

cocaine is truly unforgivable.

And of course Caroline’s rehabilitation is something out of a twelve-stepper’s

PR dream. There’s no horrible withdrawal (remember Trainspotting?),

no indication that recovering from heroin addiction is significantly

more traumatic than getting over a drinking problem. Why is this?

Maybe because the film wants to push its trite observation that the

War on Drugs is hypocritical because it would treat addicts like Caroline

much more harshly than drinkers like her father.

I don’t want to overstate my case here. Better that Hollywood produce

films saying that the war on drugs is unwinnable than it inflict upon

us more screeds saying that AIDS sufferers are human (Philadelphia)

or that racism is bad (Dances with Wolves). The Academy, for

some reason, loves these films which make viewers feel saintly in

their preconceived opinions.

And that’s really the saddest thing about Traffic: that it

won’t change a single person’s mind on the contentious issue of drug

policy. I don’t know how many latter-day Nelson Rockefellers there

still are out there; whoever they are, they probably won’t watch the

film, and if they do they’ll consider it bleeding-heart claptrap.

Most other people will probably consider the film pretty realistic,

more or less.

The way I see it, films about contentious issues should be contentious.

They should attack received opinion, in Middle America certainly but

in liberal Hollywood as well. They should make people stop and think,

and maybe get angry. You want examples? Well, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth

is the better film, but the movie I really have in mind here is James

Toback’s Black and White. Now there’s a film that would never

win an Oscar.

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One Response to Traffic

  1. Leonardo says:

    Watching movies like this really depicts what is life in the drug world and I really do believe that this drug movies are really happening in today’s environment. I think with this I really do believe that more and more people are into drugs, for what purpose? I hope that they will open their eyes on what they will get out from it.

    Leonardo from meuble TV angle 

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