The war on drugs has become this generation's Vietnam, the unwinnable conflict that will, in the end, destroy the innocent and reward the guilty. That, in a coke vial, is the premise of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, a film that gives flesh and face to bloodless government statistics and statements seldom reported in the media. Traffic is, in a sense, 2000's Three Kings: a cinematic protest, a clenched fist of celluloid that holds in contempt a government that does its best by bringing out our worst. It is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, a beautiful and brutal work.
Indeed the movie's script could have been written by government officials who admit that "despite the long-standing efforts and expenditures of billions of dollars, illegal drugs still flood the United States." A report issued by the General Accounting Office to Congress in 1998 all but waved the white flag -- or, more to the point, the white powder -- of surrender, admitting that the cultivation of coca leaf and opium poppy actually has increased in recent years. Only two years ago, top drug-policy officials fought against recertifying even Mexico as our drug-fighting ally; one of them explained that Mexico's drug dealers spend six billion dollars annually to bribe their nation's government officials.
That is where Soderbergh's film begins, in the washed-out oversaturated nowhere of Mexico, on a dusty road where huge quantities of drugs are being loaded for transport northward. Two cops, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), are there to make the bust. At first they seem to be on the take, hinting a bribe might get the traffickers past their blockade; but instead of whipping out their open wallets, they pull out their pistols and seize the truck, good guys after all. But Javier and Manolo don't make it far with their confiscated booty. General Salazar (Tomas Milian) stops the cops, insisting theirs is a job well done but he'll take over from here. Salazar is at once Mexico's drug-enforcement honcho and one of the nation's biggest exporters of drugs to the United States. He wants to eradicate the Tijuana cartel, but only because he's working for Juarez-based traffickers.
Salazar, of course, is evil masquerading as good. He recruits Javier and Manolo, who discover too late they've picked the wrong side, if there is one. Before long the cops themselves can no longer tell if they've done good or bad; such words lose all definition here. Salazar is so deft at his deception he even fools the United States' new drug czar, an Ohio State Supreme Court justice named Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas). (Soderbergh distinguishes the settings by altering the hues and textures of the film: Mexico is drenched in overexposed sepias; Ohio in winter is dipped in rich blues; and Southern California looks almost three-dimensional, clean and crystalline.)
Robert is a different brand of hypocrite, a man who insists the government can seize the property of the farmer growing "an ounce or an acre" of marijuana, then chases his rulings with a shot of Scotch; he seems to have a glass of booze glued into his palm. Worse, his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a junkie whose habits escalate in the wake of her father's departure for Washington. When we first see her, she's snorting blow with her prep-school boyfriend (That 70s Show's Topher Grace); soon enough she's freebasing and whoring herself out for a better brand of high. The Wakefields' tale, at once overwrought and achingly real, is at the core of Traffic: How can a man protect a country when he can't even save his own child? "If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy," Robert mutters upon realizing his own home has been rendered ground zero in the conflict. "And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
In the case of Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), you don't. When her husband, Carl (Steven Bauer, resurrecting dormant memories of Scarface), is busted by DEA agents -- based on the testimony of a middleman, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) -- she's indignant, humiliated. Helena insists she has no idea of her husband's drug dealing, but she too is easily corrupted -- that, or she's willing to do what it takes to survive. Like Javier south of the border, she travels in that purgatory separating the doomed from the damned. She no longer can turn a blind eye to her husband's dealing, but rather than abandon him in prison and risk losing her La Jolla fortune and social standing, she plots the execution of the sole witness against him. She's as venal, ruthless, and culpable as Carl. Helena, as it turns out, never was shamed by Carl's business, which was carried out with the assistance of the family's attorney, Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid); she merely was annoyed that she was left out of the loop.
The film's moral compass lies with DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), the men who busted Ruiz and must protect him from the bullets of an assassin (Clifton Collins, Jr.) hired to off the prosecution's star, and sole, witness. Montel and Ray provide the film with its rare moments of levity -- they spend much of the film stuck in a van, spying on Helena and trading the soft-blow insults of close friends -- but they're more than comic relief; they're true believers, cops who think they can collapse the top of the cartel by removing the middle. But they too are doomed in their own way: Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who based his powerful, thrilling, maddening, dense, epic script on the five-hour 1989 BBC miniseries Traffik) allow few rays of hope to shine through the dust- and coke-filled haze; "No one gets away clean," insists the film's poster, even the purest of souls.
If all this sounds too much like a white paper brought to life -- doctrinaire documentary only masquerading as fiction, complete with appearances from senators Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer as themselves -- you need not worry. Soderbergh has created a film that straddles the fine line between thriller and melodrama, a movie that's at once terrifying and heartbreaking without becoming too preachy. (Only toward the end does it slip into sogginess, when Michael Douglas is racing through the ghetto like George C. Scott in Paul Schrader's Hardcore.) None of these characters is an archetype, a cutout lifted from a front-page story about policy and procedure. They suffer, they ache, they bleed, and they betray, none more so than Benicio Del Toro's cop, who always looks like a man convinced he's made the wrong decision, even when he's made the right one.
For a film about the dangers of illicit drugs, Traffic possesses its own certain high. It buzzes, never dragging for a second during its 147 minutes. Even more remarkably, a film possessing nearly 100 speaking parts contains no performance better than another; it's never a distraction when big names -- Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek, Peter Riegert, Albert Finney -- show up in the tiniest of roles. After the sterile Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh's feel-good movie about people who feel really bad, Soderbergh revels in the grit and grime of this hypocritical world, working as both director and cinematographer (a role he hasn't played since Schizopolis in 1996). You feel the dirt on your skin, and you want to wash it off. No one gets away clean here -- not the people in the movie, or the people watching it.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.