Steven Soderbergh's new film "Traffic" comes along just in time to rescue the most dismal American film year in ages. Inspired by a 1989 British television series called "Traffik," a fictionalized story of the heroin drug trade from Afghanistan to England, the film has a breathtaking script by Stephen Gaghan that tells three partially-related stories of the ways in which the business of cocaine controls lives on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Soderbergh hasn't settled for any kind of conventional, trite presentation of his stories. He's shot it (himself), with a hand-held camera throughout, to give us the sight, sound and smell of actual lives, grinding, deceiving, dying as we watch. He begins with two Mexican cops intercepting a cocaine transfer in the desert outside Tijuana. One of them, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), will become the eyes, and in a sense the conscience, of the film. Del Toro, with his open face and thoughtful manner, his understated voice (in Spanish) and his character's grasp of the complexities of the drug-dealing and -fighting world around him, gives one of the great performances in film today.
He and his partner have their catch taken away by a Mexican general who will become the country's drug czar, albeit for reasons of his own. Meanwhile Soderbergh gives us a DEA raid on a San Diego middleman who will lead the DEA to an American kingpin and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in La Jolla. And then the third story begins in Cincinnati, where an Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) has just been named U.S. drug czar, except that his 16-year-old daughter (Erika Christensen) is hooked on freebase cocaine.
Magically -- there is no other word -- Soderbergh weaves the three stories in and out of each other, using different color filters on his camera. Yellow for Mexico, sepia for San Diego, blue for official America. Two of the three stories are close to perfect, though occasionally the script steals a bit too much from "The Godfather" (a federal witness in protective custody is -- well, you know, just before he's to testify). The third, the Michael Douglas section, is predictable and carries an unnecessary baggage of clichés and maudlin tearjerking.
Nevertheless this is an amazing film. It belongs completely to Soderbergh, in the same way "Jules and Jim" belonged to Truffaut and "Weekend" belonged to Godard and "Persona" belonged to Bergman. Every moment of every scene, every frame, every camera and character move, every line reading, every interaction between characters, every cut -- and the editing is equal to the shooting -- is his alone. USA Films, the producers, obviously gave him the space and time to make this work, and they stand to reap enormous benefits from what should be very high worldwide grosses.
With the exception of Michael Douglas, an actor of limited range who tries and fails to go beyond it here, all the performances are superb. Catherine Zeta-Jones, the sheltered wife of the drug lord, is fascinating with her slight, barely noticeable continental accent and her ability to learn the ins and outs of drug management. Don Cheadle, as a DEA agent, Amy Irving as the wife of a successful man -- Douglas -- who's had the life sucked out of her, and Tomas Milian, as the Mexican general with his own agenda, are all excellent and all given room for their characters to breathe. I find myself comparing "Traffic" to "The Godfather" for both films' ability to use character actors instead of stars, and have those characters drive the plot of the films. All in all, the best American film of the year, and certainly a remarkable achievement for Soderbergh.