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By Ron Wells | March 23, 2001

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, ^ The courage to change the things I can, ^ And the wisdom to know the difference.” ^ -Reinhold Niebuhr
Yeah, I know it’s pretentious to start with a quote, especially THAT one, burned into the cerebral cortex of every member of Alcohol or Narcotics Anonymous. However, as a major political activist and religious leader of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr was amazingly level-headed and forward-thinking. He saw the destructive power caused by nationalism and class structure, and how often ego and pride stood in the way of anything right or good. It’s a shame that someone of his influence couldn’t be around today for a wake-up call about America’s “War on Drugs”. In his place we have director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, “Traffic”.
This is not just a great film, but an important one. Distantly adapted from a British miniseries by Stephen Gaghan, “Traffic” weaves through several sides of the drug war waged in the U.S. and Mexico. In connected stories, Soderbergh focuses upon the forced education of three individuals suddenly thrust to the front lines of the conflict.
Newly appointed as the President’s drug czar, conservative Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michæl Douglas) receives a hard lesson when he discovers the face of the “enemy” is that of his own daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen). Private school, a good home, and the law were only speedbumps to her hellish descent into drug addiction. He can spout government policy until he’s blue, but if he expects to save his family, Wakefield will have to come with some new solutions.
Wealthy and very pregnant Helena Alaya (Catherine Zeta-Jones) probably thought she had it all, too. Her first day of school began with the arrest of her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer). First she finds out he’s a major drug kingpin. Then she learns that his incarceration has made her the focus of attention for his Mexican suppliers, DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), and even her husband’s sleazy partner Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid). Abandoned by her friends and deeply in debt, Helena’s paranoia and survival skills are all she has left to deal with their demands. She doesn’t seem to have too many options, but her chosen path may surprise everyone.
Our last student wouldn’t seem to have so much to learn. Experienced and street-savvy, Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) is good and honest. He must also be pragmatic about the necessary compromises of working in a system and nation that’s so corrupt. The rules begin to change when an intercepted drug shipment brings him under the close scrutiny of General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), Mexico’s point-man in the American drug war. Now, any miscalculation or lapse can cost Javier his own life or the lives of those around him. He must quickly process what he has just learned to determine what good can really be accomplished with such high risk.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Soderbergh is currently one of America’s greatest directors. His visual style serves the material well — strong and clear without ever overwhelming it. The biggest flourish is the difference between the natural appearance of the U.S. scenes and in the look of the Mexican cinematography, which is similar to the washed-out frame-drop look familiar from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Three Kings”. The contrast easily identifies a character’s location throughout the tightly edited film, and subtly serves to highlight the different and rules and dangers of the worlds on each side of the border.
Soderbergh also draws the usual fantastic, naturalistic performances out of his all-star cast. With over 100 speaking roles, it’s not easy to make every one of them register in the mind of the audience and make an impression. Michæl Douglas may seem occasionally over-the-top, but his character is not having such a good time. The true standout here is the soulful and versatile Del Toro. His characters always feel like whole beings, complex and contradictory. Equal to any actor working today, he requires the minimal expression to communicate the difficulty of his path. Of all the parts, his is the true warrior roaming this film’s vast and crowded landscape. He understands which battles are worth fighting and who are the real victims of the conflict. Like a good cop, he comprehends that the only goal he can really achieve is to serve and protect the bystanders of the war. This clarity of vision and purpose makes his character by far the noblest of the movie.
Okay, now comes the hard part. What is the message of this film? What exactly is the audience supposed to learn? It seems everyone has their own take on the subject of drugs. It’s such a vast topic with so many gray areas, I don’t believe anyone who doesn’t have some amount of ambivalence about narcotics in America really knows what they’re talking about.
The authors of “Traffic” have a clear purpose to their work. What they’re definitely not attempting is to preach any solutions to the problem. By choosing to touch upon the realities of law enforcement, dealers, and users, Soderbergh and company only seek to demonstrate that the current solution has become its own problem. Legal solutions have provided little discouragement for the motivated consumer to acquire and use drugs. Drugs and drug money are probably the single biggest inciter of corruption among all police. When a major supplier of narcotics is taken down, no matter how big, some leaner and smarter competitor always moves up to take his place.
For all the money, resources, and lives consumed by this war, what does the government have to show for it? By and large, most of the old-school supplies (i.e., heroin, cocaine, speed) have become purer, often cheaper, and more widely available. Law enforcement has largely succeeded in only weeding out the weaker and less competitive operations, usually leaving only the smartest and toughest. In “Traffic,” one high-school student even states that for the average teenager, drugs are easier to buy than beer.
It would be nice if the public could see this film and take the message to heart. Politics tend to poison even the idea of open discussion. As Reinhold Niebuhr frequently pointed out, seemingly mature adults dig into their intractable positions with the zeal of two-year-olds. Any politician who has dared to criticize the drug war once in office has usually been vilified, to the point where it’s next to impossible for government-funded researches to only study the topic with any degree of objectivity.
It would have been easier if our country (and many others) hadn’t been down the exact same road before. Virtually every nation’s attempt to prohibit alcohol has ended in utter failure. America gave up partially because a bigger problem presented itself, the Great Depression. The public probably needed something to take the edge off of the times, anyway. The only real results from America’s embrace with temperance seemed to be an explosion in large-scale organized crime, police corruption, and contempt for the law. Mmmm…sound familiar?
That atmosphere of contempt may be the most insidious problem. Laws only work if they have either an individual’s moral or psychological support, or if their fear of the risk of repercussions outweighs their desire to oppose the law. Regulations about behavior that seems victimless, such as the use of controlled substances or prostitution, tend not to resonate with significant chunks of the population. Try convincing your average suburban teenager of anything when their innate sense of invincibility almost always overrides any common sense. If a typical 17-year-old has the contempt for a law that’s only meant to enforce his or her own self-preservation, how big a step is it for them to become cynical about the law in general, and then paranoid and suspicious of its police enforcers?
Hey, I’m not saying I know the one true path of enlightenment to America’s love-hate affair with narcotics, but the issue has been around a long time and it’s not going away. One thing I do believe is that the likely solution will please hardly anyone, at least not at first. What the makers of “Traffic” wish to communicate is that as long as we poison the big discussion with politics, there will be little effect upon the individuals who poison their bodies. Drug addiction begins as a personal problem and it’s the person you must convince that it is wrong.
Okay, end of rant. Any movie that can provoke serious discussion on a difficult issue must be doing something right. I only hope that “Traffic” finds its audience and that they listen to a lesson that might have been learned 70 years ago. Reinhold Niebuhr was around back then. If he were still around, he’d probably be realistic and try to steer the argument away from easy answers and easy villains. Sometimes in life you have to choose your battles and take satisfaction from the small successes, like saving just one person. Total resolution seems a discouragingly impossible goal. Open discussion at this stage would be success enough for something like a movie. Niebuhr may have said it best when he offered, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”

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