Political Film Society - Traffic

PFS Film Review


TrafficThe War on Drugs has been exposed as a fraud in Traffic, which is based in part on the 1990 BBC miniseries Traffik, which focused on drug traffic from Pakistan to Britain. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose Erin Brockovich was nominated for two awards earlier this year by the Political Film Society, the movie centers around conservative Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas), who has just been appointed to head the President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, in the expectation that he would read well-scripted balderdash; the White House Chief of Staff (played by Albert Finney) who hired him doubtless knew that problems in the Wakefield household, which we discover in due course, would restrain his ardor for headlines. Wakefield sees the war on three but not all fronts, because short cuts go to the real "battle lines" in San Diego and Tijuana, about which he learns nothing during the film. The first front consists of experts in Washington, D.C., who are funding the War on Drugs to the tune of $45 billion annually, with cameos from Republican Senators Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Don Nickles as well as Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. The second front consists of Drug Enforcement Administration officers and other officials in the field, who do their duty. The third front is the home front, as Wakefield’s daughter Caroline (played by Erika Christensen), a sixteen-year-old honor student at a private school, can get drugs and sex more easily than alcohol, and she wants to go that route (joining one-fourth of all American teenagers today) because her parents, including a mother Barbara (played by Amy Irving) who experimented with drugs in college, seem too busy with their own lives to care about her. But there are two more fronts -- one in San Diego and the other in México. In San Diego, the kingpin is Carlos Ayala (played by Steven Bauer), who has been indicted on various charges; his pregnant wife, Helena (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), then realizes that her husband is a drug lord. When the film shifts to México, the technicolor changes to tobacco brown, and we view rival gangs seeking to control the drug trade. The Obregón gang is in charge of the Tijuana Cartel; Juan Obregón (played by Benjamin Bratt) ruthlessly tries to restrain a rival Mexican cartel, headquartered near the Texas border, from eliminating him. General Arturo Salazar (played by Tomás Milián), presumably the anti-drug tsar of México, in reality is allied with the Obregón’s adversaries, the Juarez Cartel. With so many different stories, which may confuse filmviewers, the plot is not what is memorable about the film. Instead, the most profound messages are conveyed by some of the least prominent characters. The Washington front is exposed as trying to criminalize the drug traffic while knowing next to nothing about the realities; platitudes of the Senators provide solid evidence of their naïveté. The front employing bureaucrats at the border consists of officials who are more honest, confessing that their resources are piddling compared to the vast profits of drug lords on both sides of the border and thus that most drug smuggling gets through the border, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Wakefield notes, while listening to a deafening silence after his call for new ideas from the bureaucrats, that none of the agencies has supplied anyone for his field trip who specializes in drug rehabilitation. But when Wakefield tries to play vigilante to save his daughter from drug addiction, her boyfriend Seth Abrams (played by Topher Grace) urges him to back off, as the profits made in the ghettoes from the sale of drugs are too lucrative for any police sweep to eradicate; indeed, only an unthinkable but systematic sweep of all white neighborhoods for drugs would stop the profits from the traffic. At the San Diego front, mid-level drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (played by Miguel Ferrer) is captured by Drug Enforcement Administration agents Montel Gordon (played by Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (played by Luis Guzmán) and immunized to testify against his boss, Carlos Ayala. Helena arranges to kill Ruiz, and Ayala is released, demonstrating that American drug kingpins have infinite resources to avoid conviction and that any law enforcement action is bound to place American government officials in the position of allies of one or another faction in México seeking to control the distribution. American law enforcement, in other words, consists of show trials that merely remove some drug lords, but others will simply take their place. The Mexican front shows that the crackdown on drugs in the United States serves to intensify the struggle for control among drug lords, who bribe officials and kill rivals to gain control. Mexican drug enforcement officials based in Tijuana, notably Javier Rodriguez (played by Benicio Del Toro), have to walk a tightrope to survive, a lesson that Javier’s partner Manolo Sanchez (played by Jacob Vargas) only learns as he is killed by agents of General Salazar. Ultimately, Wakefield comes to his senses when he sees his daughter spaced out on drugs in a flophouse. He delivers a prepared speech to the press, full of platitudes, and then stops midway to say that the solution to the problem lies within American families. He then abruptly walks out of the White House press conference without finishing his speech or answering questions. In the closing frames of Traffic, when the color returns to the blue-gray of the world of middle-class whites and official Washington, the daughter is at a Drugs Anonymous meeting alongside her mother and father. When asked to say something after his daughter has spoken, giving thanks that she made through another day, Wakefield says that he is present to give support to his daughter. In short, Traffic is heavy medicine for a country divided between affluent addicts and naïve adults who want to criminalize drug addiction and then throw money at the problem in a self-righteous gesture, with a message that the War on Drugs has already been won by the drug lords. The tagline of the film, "No one gets away clean," hits the nail on the head, as the problem is that the demand for drugs creates the supply. The Political Film Society has nominated Traffic as best film exposé of the year 2000. MH

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