Celluloid Drugs

The kind of publicity this movie has reaped puts it in the same league as French Connection 1 and 2, and the Harrison Ford movie, Clear And Present Danger: a major Hollywood moment dramatizing the economics, politics, and culture of the drug trade. In New York and other cities, theatres have been sold out. Traffic sets a higher standard than its predecessors, one that is not content to reduce the issues to foreign nasties vs. gutsy cops.

Furthermore, substantial slices of this film are subtitled. Does the success of Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon mean that movie audiences are more willing to deal with subtitles than Hollywood usually thinks? Let’s hope so. Soderbergh, director of Sex, Lies and Videotape, Schizopolis, The Limey, Out Of Sight, and Erin Brockovich, is in a good position to push the envelope.

What does this drama offer us? I stress ‘dramatic’ because on the Left we often seem to have a deep yearning to revise every feature film as a documentary and praise or blame it accordingly. So we ask, does it offer us the facts? What crucial stuff does it leave out? The questions are overly simple. They imply that any film, feature or documentary has to be encyclopedic to avoid being slammed as ideologically distorted. Dramatically, movies are more than a bunch of facts, and most audiences expect them to be more. Traffic does deal with the hard drug issue quite extensively, but it also has pace and holds the viewer’s attention for just over two and a half hours, weaving constantly between three distinct plots.

There’s one story of two regular Tijuana cops (played by Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas), partners operating on the petty retail side of everyday corruption, who get sucked up into a spiral of high government corruption and intrigue closely modeled on recent events in Mexico. A second story involves a Chicana (Catherine Zeta-Jones) living high off the hog in La Jolla–thanks to her trafficker husband’s affluence–who abruptly changes herself into a street-smart, take-no-prisoners narco in her own right. Finally, there’s the story of the U.S. drug czar, the fast downward slide into smack-and-crack addiction of his one and only daughter, and his quest to rescue her.

The first two stories are much more closely interwoven, both in location and characters. The other story (czar and daughter) acts as a kind of moral chorus commenting on the more direct crime-and-suspense dimensions of the first two, and scores some didactic but much-needed hits. It’s an admittedly clumsy metaphor, but one with political importance, for the reach of the hard drug trade into each and every corner of U.S. life and the direct effect of such extensive demand on supply. Latin Americans are tired of pointing out that if Americans wouldn’t use the stuff in vast quantities, it wouldn’t pay the narcos to produce it, and that if it were regulated the megabucks wouldn’t be there to suck in the gang rivalry and violence. Yet policymakers blissfully forget their favorite rules of supply and demand when it comes to drugs.

Bringing the drug czar (Michael Douglas) down to earth and into his daughter’s hell is a new step for Hollywood, which tends to equate dependency on hard drugs with people of color, the poor, the inadequate, habitual losers. By contrast, this film insists there is no place in the U.S. class hierarchy and no corner of its culture where the demand for drugs is absent. The movie shows just how immediate and central is the connection between retail drug pushers and wealthy, young white people dropping into drug locales in their expensive cars and then back out again to their ritzy suburbs. And symbolically, when Douglas asks for new policies from his staff, we see him met with a crashing silence. Traffic makes no bones that U.S. policy-makers have no clue how to address the issues raised by dependency on hard drugs, only shibboleths like military interdiction.

Unfortunately, the film never gets around to answering the big question: What is it about our culture that fosters an insatiable demand for hard drugs? Soderbergh provides a few hints, suggesting that rich kids such as Caroline, the drug czar’s daughter (Erika Christensen), are sapped by a lack of purpose and by alienation from their parents’ hollow lives and compromised ethics. Sexual and hallucinogenic sensation become their only moment of truth. A more profound look at these kids and what makes them tick might have taken another film, but Traffic only gets to hint at an existential desert at the heart of their culture.

So we watch Caroline’s descent into hell without comprehending it. The story gets particularly patchy at this point. For instance, we see the drug czar and his wife (Amy Irving) in a sudden savage bout of mutual recrimination over Caroline’s addiction, bearing all the tones of truth, but it quickly blows away without trace. Very implausibly, we then see Douglas himself personally hunting down his daughter without any attempt to mobilize the detection resources at his command, or any sense that the cameras might be out following his trajectory. And the daughter’s jerk boyfriend, dramatically credible as someone who gets a kick out of being her substances-and-sex mentor, suddenly switches into a sociologist as he lectures Douglas on the demand-side economics of the drug trade.

The strongest narrative is certainly that of the Tijuana cops. When his buddy is gunned down in cold blood and he is suddenly forced into dealing with the upper echelons of the ruthless narco-world, Del Toro’s chiseled, almost Cubist face is haunting. He is caught between his desire for a better life than the one afforded by a Mexican cop’s miserable pay and his even deeper yearning to see the kind of local community develop that would give neighborhood kids good reasons to live. As he fulfills his partner’s last wish–that his girlfriend should be told his death was in the line of duty–Del Toro wonderfully conveys the crushing pressure of suppressed silent rage and hurt.

The Tijuana cops’ story carries the most tension and suspense. Oddly, however, Soderbergh shot all the Mexican scenes with a strange yellow-sepia lens, while D.C. and Cincinnati–the drug czar’s home town–are shot in a pale, gray-blue-green. Only La Jolla ends up looking visually normal, while the color in Tijuana and Mexico City is distinctly distracting. Is Soderbergh trying to hold our hands as he switches from one story to another? Aren’t the English subtitles and the Spanish dialogue enough to tell us we’re in Mexico? Are we supposed to be on another planet?

The transformation of the kingpin’s wife, who was seemingly dazed by the revelation of her husband’s actual line of business but who suddenly turns herself into a heavy player once he is locked away, is quite difficult to take. Her devastation at the revelation changes almost instantly from tearful fury into cool and calculated self-preservation, to the point where the audience could be forgiven for wondering why such an organized and savvy individual would be so uninformed about her husband’s criminal activity. Is her fury for the benefit of her husband’s prison guards or for us? Is it from fear of reprisals against her small son?

Here again, Traffic comes up short when it comes to character motivation, offering only a passing reference to her hard-scrabble upbringing as though it were some kind of long-forgotten technical college course for narco-hood. Her transition is total: When her husband is released from jail you almost wonder whether he has an unsuspected treat in store for him at her hands, even though he clearly thinks he is back as kingpin and issuing the orders.

Woven into their story is still another pair of cops, this time from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who are very nicely played–sometimes for laughs–by Don Cheadle and the marvelous Luís Guzmán. Early in the movie they net a U.S. Customs agent taking bribes from the Mexican narcotraficantes, who becomes a key protected witness against the kingpin. Parallel with the Tijuana duo, one of these cops loses his life along the way, in this case as victim of a car-bomb.

One of the film’s strengths is the way it acknowledges so many of the U.S. dimensions of the drug trade. But the film is far from complete. There is no mention of the military interdiction strategy in Latin America, or the frequent correlation, noted by Peter Scott and Jonathan Marshall in their 1991 book Cocaine Politics, between CIA interventions and the rise of drug trafficking. Also unmentioned is its impact on the spiraling imprisonment rates in the United States. Yet the movie’s combined focus on the intimate linkages between Mexico and the United States, and between elite circles and the ghetto within the States, is a striking novelty. Usually, as noted, the issues are implicitly reduced to brown and black people and white-trash people.

Having said that, the film’s representation of Mexicans and Chicanos is much more nuanced than its representation of African Americans. Of the latter, there is one unqualified white hat (Don Cheadle) and one unqualified black hat-drug pusher and pimp, with nothing in between. Yet the white hat is seemingly so… white… that at the end he is able to walk unimpeded into the kingpin’s party and feign a shouting match to distract attention from the fact he is planting a bug. How was he let in? Do kingpins keep open house these days? There is a comfy naïveté about race at intervals in this film.

Given the ever more destructive impact of the heavy drugs trade on the United States and Latin America, not to mention many other parts of the planet, movies that explore the subject are badly needed to provoke the kind of intense public dialogue that’s sorely lacking. Instead, the United States is nearly choking on moralistic posturing pooh-bahs while we’re up to our elbows in toppling Colombia and other Latin nations dangerously off-balance with our military’s plug-the-source interventions. Not to mention our racist sentencing policies for crack-cocaine use which have swollen the Black and Latino prison population to new and horrifying heights. Traffic, despite its problems in characterization and its occasionally didactic tone, deserves some kudos as Hollywood’s first attempt to engage with the hard drug trade’s extensive web of interaction, class-wise and internationally, and to do so with reasonable dramatic interest.

Although the ending is less than convincing, at least it proposes a switch from punitive and primitive Prohibition- era tactics to a strategy of exploring and understanding the dynamics of demand for hard drugs. This is the hard question successive administrations have hated to ask, notwithstanding the vast cost-difference between interdiction and rehabilitation.

John Downing is a professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at UT.

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Published at 12:00 am CST