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Daily | 01.12.01
Traffic School
Chris Lehmann on Steven Soderbergh's new public service announcement

TRAFFIC, Steven Soderbergh's justly praised, agreeably broad indictment of the war on drugs, achieves all sorts of admirable formal innovations. There's a layered, intricate treatment of four separate plotlines, one of which is rendered almost entirely (if very slowly) in Spanish; there's an arresting complement of handheld, bleached-out, and sped-up 360-degree shots capturing both the edgy chaos of Tijuana and the jittery onset of overdoses. But for all these shows of cinematic bravura, Traffic is a new-millennial update of what the studio brass of fifties Hollywood used to call the Message (or, in its more ambitious moments, the Social Problem) Picture. Like the fifties' spate of mob and urban corruption movies (such as The Big Heat or Underworld U.S.A.), Soderbergh's tour through the drug wars -- adapted from Simon Moore's British TV miniseries Traffik -- presents a world of incorrigible covert seediness, steadily burrowing into the hollowed-out institutions that preside over a pro forma social peace. And Traffic, much like the Message Picture's flagship entry, Rebel without a Cause, tries neatly to pinpoint the quintessence of its Message/Problem within the troubled heart of the American family.

To be sure, Traffic plays up some bigger themes, such as the internecine rivalries of global supply lines and corrupt enforcement regimes that hopelessly blur the conceit that the mere act of declaring a symbolic war magically cleaves the drug predicament into obligingly simple good guy/bad guy camps. But the futility of America's interdiction-mad drug war only hits home for U.S. Drug Czar-designate Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas) when his sixteen-year-old daughter Catherine becomes a victim of the drug epidemic. In the film's opening moments, Wakefield is quizzed by a local reporter on how much his duties will keep him away from his home and family in Cincinnati, and he swats the question away with a supremely self-confident bit of ideological boilerplate: "It's an issue that affects all families. I'm planning to be here as much as I can." Of course, his glibness comes back to haunt him. As Wakefield gets consumed by the border-patrolling, Capitol-glad-handing rounds of his job, his family succumbs to neglect, and his daughter vanishes into a haze of coke and heroin smoke, as well as a chemically driven tour of prostitution. By the movie's end, he chokes on the platitudinous speech he's supposed to make after the Senate ratifies his appointment: "I can't do this," he mutters, as senior administration officials quietly blanch at his side. "If we're fighting a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy and I don't know how you wage war on your own family."

Wakefield's moment of deconversion (while undeniably pleasing to watch) begs some rather big questions, among them (as in message movies past) why a crisis only claims serious official attention when it takes on a white and privileged familial cast. And rather more to the point, it's not clear how, if at all, Caroline's own descent into addiction issues from her Dad's lust for policy clout. In the handful of scenes where she and her fellow Cincinnati Country Day School pals are shown in states of semi-self-aware self-medication, they rail more against the general, ritualized phoniness of their ettiquette-straitened social world -- much like another preppy forebear of the fifties, Holden Caulfield. Authenticity is as much a head rush to them as freebasing is -- which also explains their repeated, greatly implausible after-school forays into the crack houses of Cincinnati's inner city. Much the same curious cultural reductionism holds even in the carnage-and-coke-addled mean streets of Tijuana. There, Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez -- played with amazing, smoldering intensity by Benicio del Toro -- turns out to be motivated by a blessedly domestic agenda of his own. He hopes, in grand American fashion, to fight the scourge of drug use among Tijuana's young with the healing power of sport. "Everybody likes baseball," Rodriguez tells some DEA agents who are soliciting intelligence about his corrupt employer. And sure enough, the movie's final scene lingers on Rodriguez savoring a Little League night game on the majestic green sward of a baseball field. It's as though Darryl Strawberry had simply never happened.

It is not to detract from Traffic's considerable truth-telling virtues to point out that such stirring evocations of untroubled young pleasures and wholesome family comity don't stand much of a chance against the deadened sensibilities that ratchet up drug demand, or the interdiction frenzy that (as in the original age of Prohibition) stirs such entrepreneurial zeal among ambitious players, and nations, locked out of more legitimate enterprises. "I'm here to listen," a chastened Wakefield tells the assembled members of the recovery group that Catherine has been lassoed into. But given the eminence he's been granted on the question, it might be better for him to speak -- and specifically, to utter the Message that blares unspoken through the many grim intrigues and authenticity redoubts of Traffic: "legalization."

Chris Lehmann is an editor at the Washington Post.
Other articles by Chris Lehmann


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