TRAFFIC is not a bad film, although the only immediately apparent topic to discuss is its production -- and any film that rests entirely on its production is hardly a film at all. TRAFFIC has three stories, each filmed with its own distinctive colour filter (though if you watch the bonus features on your Criterion Edition DVD, you will learn that there is much more to its colours than simple camera filters): the parts in Mexico are in overexposed, burnt-looking sepia, and Michael Douglas is filmed in blue. This sounds a lot more impressive than it really is: the effects are relatively subtle -- too subtle, even. Soderbergh could really have benefited from watching Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU. The decision is a radical one, but its execution is not.
TRAFFIC is a political film, made in the year 2000, about the American war on drugs. Its story takes place on both sides of the border, and with what must be a dozen characters, quite expansive. Its characters are conveniently related, but cover most of the possible demographics: cops, politicians, criminals and victims, from Mexico and America both.
Despite its overtly political nature, Soderbergh attempts and, in my opinion, fails to make TRAFFIC a humanistic portrayal of the cause and effect of the war on drugs. However, because of its tone, which consists of many independent, self-motivated scenes from its various stories (par for the course when making an “epic” political film like this), the drama of TRAFFIC ends up wooden. This could be negligible, an unimportant side-effect, if not for the ending, which is moralistic and rests completely on the humanism built up over the course of the film; also, Soderbergh’s obvious attempts to make this more than a simple political movie.
Despite these flaws, which are interesting and debatable, the most important aspect of TRAFFIC is its criticism of the American government. I can not believe that this is the first film on the subject of a war that has been ongoing since the ‘70s, but it is certainly one of the highest profile, winning four Academy Awards®. There is nothing wrong with criticism: in fact, it is an absolute necessity. However, nonconstructive criticism is not worth its subject’s time. TRAFFIC is nonconstructive criticism: in its end, the war on drugs is being fought with complete ineffectiveness, and yet still taking the toll typical of any war -- death, paranoia, families torn apart, etc. In his speech towards the end of the film, Michael Douglas’ character asks how we can fight a war when the enemy is our children. A poignant ending, to be sure, but so what? Where does that leave us? What do Steven Soderbergh and writer Steven Gaghan want us to do? End the war, or what?
Does nonconstructive criticism have any merit? I really don’t think it does: there is no excuse for being an asshole. But in the context of political fiction, what can one writer hope to bring to the table, especially when the table is worth many billions of dollars, and is 40 years old? Important questions that relate to fiction writing, and written criticism -- i.e., this blog. I don’t have the answers, but I promise, dear reader, to give these subjects serious consideration.