I'll probably be skinned alive for saying this, but I walked away from Steven Soderbergh's Traffic wishing the whole thing had been more...fun. Admittedly, fun isn't the first thing you think of when considering our nation's drug problem, but maybe it should be. Drugs are, you know, fun. Otherwise, why would so many people be willing to wreck their lives in order to take them? As a society, we aren't addicted to drugs so much as we're addicted to fun--movies, TV, videogames, anything that delivers a jolt of adrenaline to our placid lives. Soderbergh isn't above delivering that jolt of adrenaline; on the surface, Traffic is as edgy as any mainstream movie that's come out this past year. But he seems unwilling or unable to get us off, to raise the dosage on the movie's emotional impact. Oliver Stone, where are you when we need you? Adopting a kind of crazy-quilt approach to their subject, Soderbergh and scriptwriter Stephen Gaghan (and editor Stephen Mirrione) have sewn together the patches from three separate stories. In one, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) negotiates his way through the vast corruption south of the border. In another, a San Diego drug baron's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) tries to keep the family business afloat after her husband is arrested. And in the last, an Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) takes over as the country's drug czar, only to have his own teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) succumb to crack. Individually, the stories are rather weak, even trite. Collectively, they offer us a God's-eye view of the drug war, like an aerial photograph that shows how everything's connected. For this alone, Traffic would be worth seeing.
There's also the myriad performances, marred in places by celebrity casting. (Look, it's Albert Finney!) And there's that edgy surface. Soderbergh shot the movie himself, using available light whenever possible, and the tone is somewhere between "Cops" and "Frontline"--C-SPAN verité. That's one of the reasons Traffic doesn't have the emotional impact it might otherwise have had. It's like "Miami Vice" without the clothes, alive but strangely narcotized. For all my reservations, I highly recommend the movie, and I especially admire its defeatist take on the drug war. As with the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs may not be winnable. The difference is that, this time, we can't pack up and head home.