Movie Reviews

Movie Review – Traffic: The Real “Smuggler’s Blues”

Written by Simon Moore and Stephen Gaghan
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

There’s trouble on the streets tonight,
I can feel it in my bones.
I had a premonition,
That he should not go alone.
I knew the gun was loaded,
But I didn’t think he’d kill.
Everything exploded,
And the blood began to spill.

My first viewing of this movie came on a dull, dreary, rainy day. It seemed appropriate to the mood of the film. Don’t think for a minute you are going to come away from this film feeling in any way positive about the drug situation in this country.

I guess that’s the reason the Glenn Frey tune Smuggler’s Blues ran through my head as I was viewing this DVD. It was given “the treatment” once before with an episode of the 80’s show Miami Vice devoted to it, but that show glamorized the life of a drug dealer far too much to effectively convey the message of hopelessness over the drug situation contained in that song. Traffic does the job so much more effectively.

So baby, here’s your ticket,
Put the suitcase in your hand.
Here’s a little money now,
Do it just the way we planned.
You be cool for twenty hours
And I’ll pay you twenty grand.

Steven Soderbergh creates an intertwined cross-section of the drug scene in America and its effects in Mexico as well. The film jumps around from vignette to vignette giving the feeling of all of these stories occurring at the same time.

In Mexico, police officers Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas). On one side they are fighting with the druglords, while on the other contending with the imperialistic United States DEA agents.

I’m sorry it went down like this,
And someone had to lose,
It’s the nature of the business,
It’s the smuggler’s blues.
Smuggler’s Blues

In San Diego, socialite Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta Jones) is the beautiful pregnant wife of a “businessman”. We are supposed to swallow that Helena has no clue what her husband’s business is until he is arrested for drug trafficking and all their assets are frozen. It’s the one part of the story I really found implausible, but that’s just me being a woman with a brain in her head.

Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman portray the two DEA agents intent on taking down Mr. Ayala and seizing all of his assets. They aren’t very good at it, as is evident when Helena brings them out a pitcher of lemonade as they are supposedly covertly casing her house and listening in on all conversations within.

The sailors and pilots,
The soldiers and the law,
The pay offs and the rip offs,
And the things nobody saw.
No matter if it’s heroin, cocaine, or hash,
You’ve got to carry weapons
Cause you always carry cash.

The third major story involves the newly appointed Drug Czar for the United States, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas). He has great misgivings about the position, having been an Ohio State Supreme Court judge and seen the effects of drugs on the country from that side of the bench.

His personal life is none that great either. Apparently neglectful of his family, this comes back to haunt him as his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) becomes a crack user. How can the Drug Czar “fix” the country when he can’t even figure out what do with a drug problem in his own family?

There’s lots of shady characters,
Lots of dirty deals.
Ev’ry name’s an alias
In case somebody squeals.
It’s the lure of easy money,
It’s gotta very strong appeal.

What this film does is take each of the situations and questions if the way it is handled is the “right” way. Is there really any “right” way to handle it? With Helena, it was interesting to see her transformation from a pillar of San Diego society to someone at least as ruthless as her husband, if not more. With her assets frozen and nothing to live on, she is the image of a mother protecting her young and will do just about anything to take care of the family when her husband cannot.

She goes from lunching at the country club to meeting with fellow drug lords and ordering hits in nothing flat – again leaving it hard for me to believe she could really have known nothing about her husband’s business before now. The transformation is too easy and too fast – but it shows how she is almost forced into that corner. Had she had another outlet, money available to her to support the family and make the payoffs that were needed, she might have not done what she did. Was freezing the family’s assets the correct tactic for the DEA? It may have cost them the case in the end.

Perhaps you’d understand it better
Standin’ in my shoes,
It’s the ultimate enticement,
It’s the smuggler’s blues,
Smuggler’s blues.

Zeta-Jones’ performance in this part is magnificent. She manages to convince us of Helena’s story, even if the writing is a bit weak here. As she interacts with everyone from the drug lords to the DEA to her husband’s lawyer, she puts on the appropriate mask and conveys the strength of a woman backed into a corner.

I’d like to say the same about her husband, Michael Douglas (they don’t share any screen time), but I found his performance to wobble between blustery politician and a man totally overwhelmed by the task in front of him. Perhaps this was intentional, but I didn’t get that feeling. In ever scene in which he was “The Drug Czar” I got the feeling he was floundering a bit for footing.

See it in the headlines,
You hear it ev’ry day.
They say they’re gonna stop it,
But it doesn’t go away.
They move it through Miami, sell it in L.A.,
They hide it up in Telluride,
I mean it’s here to stay.

In the scenes where he is a father totally at a loss as to what to do with his daughter, he was very good. With the daughter in a private school, I got the feeling that he was a very hands-off father; the kind who considers writing the big checks for tuition an example of good parenting. When all of it comes crashing down around him, it is when Douglas is a t his best in the film.

Even after his daughter’s problem results in her banishment to a drug rehab facility, it is not the “whole family” approach, but rather sending her off somewhere “to be fixed” and leaving him out of the loop of responsibility for the situation. It is not until the end after he has dragged his daughter out of a seedy apartment where she is selling herself for the drugs that we actually see him get involved with her rehabilitation – and even then he seems uncomfortable.

It’s propping up the governments in Columbia and Peru,
You ask any D.E.A. man,
He’ll say There’s nothin’ we can do,
From the office of the President,
Right down to me and you, me and you.

The performance of Benicio Del Toro (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is the best of the whole film. With all the intentions of doing the right thing and taking down the drug lords, he is caught up in a situation he has no control over. Small side pieces tell of the corruption in the Mexican Police Department – we aren’t hit over the head with it – as well as the payoffs and bribery inherent in the corrupt system.

Soderbergh does some amazing camera work in this film. I enjoyed viewing the different tones; various shadings to convey the different moods. He did something totally different, and leaves us with an honest look at the drug problem in the U.S. There is no sugarcoating here or happy endings – it is just the way it is. Soderbergh doesn’t preach to us about what we should be doing (although the Douglas piece does seem to strongly advocate more parental involvement with their kids) but shows us that what we are currently doing just isn’t working for a wide variety of reasons.

The DVD contains commentary with Soderbergh that I did not view. There is also a documentary about the making of the film that I watched part of the way through which was pretty interesting. It interviewed various members of the cast and crew not just about the film, but also about the drug situation in general. I turned it off because actors commenting about the drug situation seemed a bit hypocritical to me. Hollywood is rife with drug problems which are continually covered up until a complete meltdown happens as in the case of Robert Downey Jr.

This is not a film to watch when you are looking for a “pick-me-up”. I would, however, recommend it as something parents and their teenagers can watch together. If nothing else, it can be a jumping-off point to starting a good dialogue between them, especially in regards to Caroline Wakefield’s situation.

It’s a losing proposition,
But one you can’t refuse.
It’s the politics of contraband,
It’s the smuggler’s blues,
Smuggler’s blues.

lyrics (c) 1985 G. Frey & J. Tempchin

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