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.