Movie Reviews

Alastair Reed’s Traffik (1989): An In-Depth Study of Why the Drug Problem Can Never Be Solved

When I reviewed the American film Traffic, a fellow writer suggested I check out the version that was based on – a 6-hour British miniseries directed by Alastair Reed.

In my opinion, Traffik is a much better study of the drug problem. Because of its length (six hour-long chapters), there is much more depth to the problem presented than in the American film.

In America, the problem is illustrated mainly as crack cocaine. In the U.K., the problem is heroin. Traffik covers the problem all the way from the poppy farmer in Pakistan to the street user and dealers in London.

The story is set in three countries: Great Britain, Germany, and Pakistan. The three intertwine throughout the six hours of play but are still separate worlds.

In Pakistan, you have a man, Fazal (portrayed by Jamal Shah) who is among the poorest of the poor. The only time he is able to provide for his family in any way is when the poppy crop comes in. When the Pakistani Army comes in and destroys the poppy farms in his village, he travels to Karachi and enters into a life that will only bring him tragedy at the hands of one of the biggest traffickers in the city, Tariq Butt (portrayed by Talat Hussain).

In Hamburg, Karl Rosshalde (portrayed by George Kukura) is returning from a trip to Pakistan when he finds himself arrested for drug trafficking. Up until now, it appeared that his business was helping the people of Pakistan with hydration systems for crops and other such machinery. However, his wife, Helen (portrayed by Lindsay Duncan) is bluntly informed by his lawyer (portrayed by Vincenzo Benestante) that the machinery business was a cover for what truly made his money.

In London, Minister Jack Lithgow (portrayed by Bill Paterson) is about to sign a new aid package to Pakistan based upon their cooperation in cracking down on heroin production and trafficking. He learns his only child, Caroline (portrayed by Julia Ormond) has become a heroin addict herself.

The version directed by Steven Soderbergh eliminated the entire storyline in Pakistan. For me, it was perhaps one of the most compelling. Like Minister Lithgow who visits Pakistan several times throughout the story, I came to the conclusion that it’s virtually impossible to stop the drug trafficking at that end. As a Pakistani prosecutor tells him, (and I’m paraphrasing) “Why should we stop farming poppies because it’s illegal in your country? Are you about to shut down the liquor factories in your country because alcohol is illegal here?”

The character of Fazal is simply trying to provide for his family. They are hungry as they wait for the poppy crop to come in. When that won’t happen, he makes several bad decisions which he will ultimately pay dearly for. However, if I put myself in his shoes and my children were hungry, what would I do? I can’t say I would never make the choices he does because I just don’t know – I can’t imagine being as bad off as they are. However, his character is written as a good soul in a bad place, and his conscience gets the better of him.

The cinematography in the piece is stunning. If you’ve seen the American version, the color contrasts are almost exactly the same from vignette to vignette. However, Reed seems to have captured the effects of shadows and light in a much better way. I noticed this, particularly in the Hamburg scenes with Helen Rosshalde. The reflections on her face as she turned from innocent housewife to cut-throat drug trafficker throughout the story perfectly captured her lost innocence as well as the steel in her veins hiding below the surface.

The acting is perfect. Since many of the actors are people we haven’t seen before, it comes easier since we have no preconceived expectations. The exception is Ormond, and she does a magnificent job as Caroline. It was scary as a parent watching her; seeing a beautiful and intelligent daughter who seems to have everything going for her fall into a terrible habit. Although I have no delusions as in “it could never happen to my child,” watching what the girl actually goes through is heart-wrenching.

The evolution of Minister Lithgow through the story is well-done as well. Bill Paterson is an amazing actor who must get a great deal of credit. The contrasts of his trip to Pakistan with what is happening on his own home front propel the story in a way that was missing from the American version. When he ultimately sabotages his own career, I understood exactly why. For the first time, he is making a choice that he believes is right. Handing more money to Pakistan will not help at all with the drug problem in Great Britain. However, he knows what will happen when he refuses to sign the agreement, and it will allow him to take a moral stand as well as be able to put Caroline’s needs ahead of his career without drawing attention to her.

I highly recommend this series to anyone. I was completely hooked after the first chapter. Even though I’d seen the American version, I was still eager to see how it all was fleshed out. Although Traffic was great, Traffik is outstanding.