Soderbergh, on Border Patrol, Dissects the Drug Economy

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic , from a screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, was inspired by a British Channel Four television miniseries entitled Traffik . Whereas this highly regarded miniseries traced the drug trade from Pakistan through Europe to Great Britain, Mr. Soderbergh and his many collaborators switched the action to Mexico and the United States. What was retained from the original was the focusing, at each stage of the process, on otherwise unrelated individuals through intersecting stories.

Traffic begins in Mexico with border policemen Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargaz) intercepting a truck full of illegal drugs and arresting the drivers. When they are stopped along the road by their supposed crime-fighting superior, General Salazar (Tomas Milian), and a contingent of his troops, they are relieved of their haul and their two prisoners. Javier and Vargas suddenly realize that Salazar is simply working for one drug cartel against another, and that there is no law and order in Mexico where narcotics are concerned. The two policemen are faced with the difficult and dangerous prospect of choosing sides in a web of corruption, betrayal and assassination. Mr. Soderbergh scores a realistic coup by having all the Mexican characters speak Spanish when they are speaking with each other-at which point there are English subtitles.

The late, great French aesthetician André Bazin credited Jean Renoir with a stroke of realism in Grand Illusion (1937) by having his characters speak French, German and English interchangeably as the linguistic occasion demanded. Of course, there is nothing new about subtitled foreign-language dialogue inserted into predominantly English-speaking films, but the very structure of the narrative in Traffic makes it virtually bilingual.

The American section of Traffic is spearheaded by Michael Douglas as Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield, named by the President as the new anti-drug czar. He is a hard-nosed enemy of drug dealers at the outset, determined to win the war on drugs with new strategies. On a fact-finding tour, he is somewhat chastened to learn that the dealers can outspend the government at every turn, and that his proposed partnership with Mexican authorities has fallen through with the arrest of General Salazar. Even closer to home, Wakefield and his wife Barbara (Amy Irving) are suddenly confronted with the ruinous drug addiction of their A-student daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen).

Closer to the front lines of the drug war are undercover agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán). Their job is building a case against the notorious Obregon drug cartel. After one of the most explosive and prolonged gunfights in the film, Montel and Castro bust a mid-level trafficker named Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) and succeed in making him turn state’s evidence against upscale suburban drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer). He is dragged off in handcuffs in front of his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her little boy. She and her child are quickly threatened by her husband’s business associates and shadowed by D.E.A. agents. From a state of innocence, she is thrust by necessity into the business of killing a witness against her husband and otherwise protecting his interests. In this she relies on shady attorney Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), who sees an opportunity to move in on Helena and her growing family while her husband languishes in prison.

Mr. Soderbergh has shot much of the film with a hand-held camera to give it the newsreely look that goes back to Open City in 1946 and to Dogma 95 in our own time. There is no background music used for the traditional function of emotional underlining. The rhythm of the film is derived instead from the editing and from the multiple perspectives on the action. Actually, Mr. Soderbergh photographed the film himself and, being denied a “directed and photographed by” credit, uses the pseudonym Peter Andrews as the cinematographer.

As to what the film is saying, opinions may differ. It strongly suggests that we are losing the war on drugs and shall continue to lose it well into the foreseeable future. Yet the alternatives of decriminalization and legalization are not argued as feasible solutions. Mr. Soderbergh insisted in interviews that he was not interested in making a film simply about drug addiction, its cures and its consequences. The world of Traffic is enmeshed and immersed in narcotics not as a clinical subject, but as a form of entrepreneurial capitalism. Indeed, the most damning thing that is said about the Mexican police is that they routinely regard their jobs as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

As for the high incidence of drug abuse among American teenagers, the only solution rests with the parents, as the last communal shot indicates. Still, it is not surprising that Traffic was voted this year’s Best Picture by the New York Film Critics. By not taking a polemical position on the issue of narcotics, Mr. Soderbergh and his colleagues have given the actions of their characters greater credibility. This is the way the world is, not the way the world might or should be. And by keeping the pressure on all his characters for most of the film’s running time, great opportunities are provided for all the players to show how much grace they can summon. Mr. Del Toro, Mr. Douglas, Mr. Cheadle and Ms. Zeta-Jones are especially noteworthy in this regard.

But the real star of the film is Mr. Soderbergh, who has demonstrated this year in Erin Brockovich and Traffic the full range of his versatility since his spectacular prize-winning splash at Sundance and Cannes in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape , a movie everyone I know said was grossly overrated. Contentious as always, I said I liked it a lot, and was determined to follow his career with special care. On the whole, he has not disappointed me, though his second film, Kafka (1991), struck me as something he had to get out of his system. King of the Hill (1993) was a humanist triumph, and what is wrong with a film commemorating the Great Depression and the people that survived it? The Underneath (1995) was much underrated by everyone but me. Schizopolis (1996) didn’t quite come off, but Gray’s Anatomy (1996) did everything that could be done cinematically for the comedy of Spalding Gray. But with Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999), Mr. Soderbergh was truly out of sight with a Hawksian range of genres. Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he’s going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled.

Casting for a Third Oscar

Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away , from a screenplay by William Broyles Jr., is a very ambitious movie both for the director and his star, Tom Hanks. It is the kind of picture in which its makers obviously spent a great deal of time saying, “Let’s do this; no, let’s do that, and we can straighten out everything in the cutting room.” In other words, Cast Away is the kind of movie in which innumerable choices have been made, the kind of movie that is so intimidating I have to make jokes at its expense in self-defense. Still, I must say I prefer it to Forrest Gump (1994), which I found overly cute, and I wouldn’t mind Hanks’ garnering a third Oscar for his portrayal of Chuck Noland, the workaholic FedEx systems engineer who finds himself alone on a remote island after a harrowing plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. It is a simulated crash you may be sure you will never see on an in-flight screen.

This brings me to my first big objection to Cast Away . There is a joke about a puny piece of product placement in David Mamet’s State and Main , but Cast Away adds a new dimension to the practice by serving as a feature-length movie about one company (FedEx) while bad-mouthing its competition. Then again, I couldn’t believe that there was an uninhabited island anywhere that hadn’t been snapped up by Club Med.

As it happens, I caught a screening of Cast Away a few days before I was to undergo a dicey bout of oral surgery. Therefore, I did not need a brutal scene in which the becalmed Chuck uses an ice-skate blade from a washed-ashore FedEx package to extract a painful tooth. I had not witnessed such dental savagery, albeit self-inflicted, since Laurence Olivier made life hell for Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976). Also, it didn’t seem to me that Chuck had enough reliable sources of food over his four-year ordeal.

When I tell people that Chuck starts having serious conversations with a volleyball salvaged from the crash-along with a great many other marginally useful FedEx packages that washed up on the shore for more far-fetched product placement-my listeners look at me strangely. “Ah, but,” I continue weakly, “it’s not just the volleyball he’s talking to, but a face he has drawn on the volleyball.” “Oh,” they say, and move on.

And then there is Helen Hunt as the love interest, mostly in absentia . The Observer recently listed the Hollywood movies in which Ms. Hunt does not appear, and it is true that she seems to be suffering from overexposure. Though I like her, I do think she is too often playing the same kind of hard-bitten broad with a heart as big as the Grand Canyon. By this time, she is beginning to seem soggy with sincerity. Just once I’d like to see her play a slut or a bitch-but then, I suppose, people wouldn’t like her, and she wouldn’t get any more awards.

But I’m stalling. My ultimate objection to this updated Robinson Crusoe story is its preachy subtext of self-improvement through enforced loneliness and privation. The original Robinson Crusoe, as Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) portrayed him, displayed an ingrained passion for property. Old Crusoe would have chortled at any currently gaseous invocations of the human spirit. Nonetheless, this movie offers Mr. Hanks ample opportunity to tear every scene to tatters, and this should impress the Oscar voters.