“Traffic” represents the second film released in 2000 for director Steven Soderbergh, who is fast becoming one of the most prolific A-list filmmakers working in the United States. It is also markedly different in ambition and tone from its predecessor, “Erin Brockovich,” which almost plays like a Hollywood star vehicle compared to this gritty, verite-styled epic that chronicles the war against drugs in the United States and Mexico from top to bottom — from the cartels south of the border to the street-level user in upper-class American surburbia.
Both pictures manage to be issue-oriented and character-driven at the same time.
But “Traffic” pulls off the even more formidable challenge of being simultaneously epic in scope and highly personal in its approach. This hat trick is fortified by the telling of three interlocking stories, giving its ensemble cast ample opportunities to shine in individual roles.
The film also benefits from a highly charged issue that effects all strata of society, and a Shadow Convention spin — favoring treatment over criminalization — on a subject that is bound to generate major controversy in the op-ed pages. Pic’s tackling of a major socio-political issue could certainly strike a chord with the Academy in the manner of previous winners such as ’54’s “On the Waterfront” (unionization), ’86’s “Platoon” (Vietnam), ’35’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” (anti-Semitism) and ’67’s “In the Heat of the Night” (racism).
Michael Douglas, who previously won an Oscar for his lead in “Wall Street,” plays a state supreme court justice who is being groomed to be the next U.S. anti-drug czar — a process complicated by his daughter’s growing addiction to cocaine, then heroin. Douglas’ wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, plays the wife of a wealthy drug baron, whose arrest draws her into the business. Other key roles are played by Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Jacob Vargas, Luis Guzman, newcomer Erika Christensen and Benicio Del Toro, whose understated performance could very well lift him above his trademark character actor status.
As for Soderbergh — whose only previous Oscar nomination was for his screenplay of “sex, lies and videotape” (1989) — this film puts him in contention to be nominated in the director category for two different films for the first time since Michael Curtiz in 1938 (for “Angels With Dirty faces” and “Four Daughters”). Adding even another compelling note is that Soderbergh also acts as cinematographer and camera operator under the pseudonym of “Peter Andrews,” giving the film three distinct looks to distinguish its parallel storylines.