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Director: Steven Soderbergh

Producer: Laura Bickford

Written by: Stephen Gaghan

Cast: Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Luis Guzman, Miguel Ferrer, Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek

Rating: out of 5

In what is surely the most intelligent and complex film ever made about drugs, TRAFFIC is a bright, shining revelation in this dreary movie year. Not that it is merely the best of a bad bunch. It’s a film of staggering depth, insight, and power, one which seems hell-bent on enlightening viewers by asking them to participate in this convoluted issue, rather than merely supplying them with pat and, as the film proves, woefully inadequate answers.

Adapted from the 1990 British television miniseries "Traffik" by director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, TRAFFIC is a series of related stories, each confronting a different aspect of the drug trade between Tijuana and the U.S. The first of these narratives concerns Robert Wakefield (Douglas), the national drug czar-to-be who must simultaneously navigate the political minefield of national drug policy while attempting to save his prep school-bred teenage daughter from the depths of addiction. Exuding the frustration of a man placed in an impossible situation—torn between his no-nonsense ideals regarding the drug war and his frustration at the problem’s seemingly endless hypocrisy—Douglas gives his second great performance of 2000 (the first being his pot-smoking professor in "WONDER BOYS).

Helena Ayala (Zeta-Jones), the trophy wife of a drug smuggler, also finds trouble at home when her husband is carted away by DEA officials for drug running. Afraid of losing her life and lifestyle because of her husband’s crimes, Ayala makes a most unlikely decision—she attempts to have a key witness in her husband’s trial executed for squealing to the Feds. The film subtly links both Douglas’ and Zeta-Jones’ characters through their desire to protect the families they value above all else. Douglas’ attempt to save his daughter from a life of prostitution and addiction allows him to see the error of his ways (both as a father and in his profession). But Zeta-Jones’ decision to turn to her husband’s cohorts for help, rather than abandoning him, illustrates how the fundamental allure of drug dealing—with the wealth, status and power it affords—is so formidable for those wanting to stamp it out.

Yet it is in Javier Rodriguez (Del Toro), a Tijuana cop caught between fighting drug trafficking on the one hand and fighting the corrupt police force that surreptitiously supports the drug lords on the other, that the film finds its emotional center. Faced with police complicity in the Mexican drug hierarchy, Rodriguez is forced into a lose-lose situation—stay silent and abandon his convictions, or turn to the DEA and put his career, and life, in jeopardy. Del Toro, whose smoldering ferocity lies dormant just behind his serene eyes, gives a beautifully measured performance, all quiet dignity and unspoken authority. He’s a man who knows right from wrong but, torn between the two, has yet to decide which is more important.

Rounding out the magnificent cast are a host of well-known faces, including Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as DEA agents assigned to take down, and then to protect until trial, a mid-level dealer; Dennis Quaid as Zeta-Jones’ shady lawyer, who has more on his mind than his clients’ best interests; and a wealth of superb supporting players, including Albert Finney, Miguel Ferrer, and Amy Irving. Even when the film resorts to high-profile cameos, it never (unlike Terrence Malick’s otherwise brilliant THE THIN RED LINE) distracts its audience from the narrative’s intense momentum.

Shot with an immediacy and intimacy rarely found in such an ambitious big-studio project, Soderbergh cements his reputation as one of the few daring and innovative studio directors working today. Employing an array of wondrous colors to establish both mood and setting, and shooting largely via handheld cameras (the director is also credited as cinematographer), Soderbergh bestows upon his tapestry a poignant realism that conveys not only the subject’s monumental relevance, but the tragic futility of America’s efforts (both past and present) to stem the tide of crime, death, and tragedy that follow in the drug trade’s wake.

Yet the film never becomes didactic and, in its willingness to portray the issue without bias, rides briskly along (even at 2 hours and 20 minutes) on the back of Gaghan’s brilliant script, which presents each character without fire-and-brimstone condemnation or falsely romantic praise. Here is a film that allows its audience to decide what is right and wrong, and to admit its inability to answer its own questions. Rarely do we see this kind of expert craftsmanship bestowed upon issues of such weight. Without question, TRAFFIC is the crowning achievement of Soderbergh’s still-young directorial career, and stands as the year’s best film.

—Nicholas Schager

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