From suppliers to dealers to users, from government agencies to federal and local law enforcement, the War On Drugs is articulated with astonishing clarity and breadth in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, which knits together a complete picture from piecemeal snippets of news reports, personal accounts, and propaganda. Harnessing such a complex and multifaceted issue into a coherent narrative would be impressive enough, but Soderbergh's vision is distinguished most of all by its honesty, which lends the voice of sanity to a debate often clouded by noisy rhetoric. His compassion and intellectual curiosity inform a downbeat and refreshingly ambivalent perspective on the drug war, noting its myths, delusions, and casualties as well as the minor victories that make a losing cause worth fighting for. Inspired by the BBC miniseries Traffik, which followed the international heroin trade, Traffic narrows its focus strictly to the flow of narcotics from Mexican cartels to American streets. With equal time spent on several interconnected storylines, an impressive ensemble cast fills out roles on both sides of the border, each one part of the chain that supplies (or intercepts) drugs. On the supply side, Benicio Del Toro plays a deeply conflicted Tijuana police officer who earns most of his income from looking the other way, common practice in a city where "law enforcement is an entrepreneurial activity." Impossibly wealthy and resourceful cartels are given free reign in the corrupt system, and ironically, the only real threat to drug lords comes from occasional skirmishes with rival drug lords. On the justice side, Michael Douglas plays the newly appointed drug czar, a position he accepts with enthusiasm but soon finds spectacularly impotent, especially when he can't even manage his own daughter (Erika Christensen) as she spirals into addiction. Meanwhile, DEA agents Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán work a case against a major kingpin (Steven Bauer), while Catherine Zeta-Jones, his formerly oblivious wife, goes to extreme lengths to spring him and salvage their family and country-club lifestyle. Though overstuffed with characters, plot points, and provocative ideas, Traffic still succeeds as a tense and almost ruthlessly efficient piece of storytelling, full of inventive and vividly realized scenes layered with meaning. Making hexavalent chromium the stuff of crackerjack entertainment in Erin Brockovich proved Soderbergh's abilities, but the amount of personality he continues to invest in big-budget studio projects is still surprising. Traffic could have been a bland, documentary-like procedural, but he gives it the distinctive two-tone look he brought to Out Of Sight, an eerily effective ambient soundtrack, and frequently radical editing rhythms. While the film's mammoth ambition opens up a few minor flaws—making Douglas' daughter an addict is a little too neatly ironic, and Zeta-Jones' transformation from clueless wife to ruthless player happens too quickly—its achievements are impossibly rich. Most important of all, Traffic gives the fullest treatment yet of a problem that won't go away.
More from The A.V. Club