On February 8, Netflix is scheduled to release the latest film from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, entitled High Flying Bird. It’s always important to brush up on the past work of a filmmaker, so revisiting Traffic seemed like a fantastic idea. Soderbergh has always gone against the grain when it comes to filmmaking, and this film is no exception. The result of his experimenting tends to vary, but in the case of Traffic, he succeeded with flying colors.
Any film wants the audience to understand a central message by the end of its runtime. Traffic relays its theme within the first 20 minutes, and never allows the viewer to forget it. Soderbergh tackles the unwinnable war on drugs and proceeds to highlight the infinite reasons why it’s an impossible battle. Through the use of three separate narratives, it allows the topic to be analyzed from all angles. It is a sprawling depiction of various walks of life. Benicio Del Toro plays a police officer doing his best to clean up the cartels in Mexico. Michael Douglas is a government official known throughout the film as the “drug czar,” who is constantly reminded his job is impossible. Finally, Don Cheadle portrays a DEA agent trying to get a U.S. drug distributor indicted on charges.
These three narratives are the basis of the film, and each section has their own various subplots and color schemes to set themselves apart from one another. The colors of this film are an odd directorial choice at times, but at no point do they detract from the story. Each storyline was color graded for the viewer to more properly follow the overarching plot, and it simply begins to feel superfluous. The only portion in which the different colors felt worthwhile were the Mexico segments. These sections have a very grainy, yellow tint. It allows the viewer to garner a sense of how these locations have simply been beaten down and left to collect dirt and grime.
As stated, each section of the film has its own various subplots, and they work to different degrees. While some flourish and could be separate films entirely on their own, others seem forgotten until they unexpectedly wrap up. For example, a majority of Douglas’ segment focuses on his drug-addicted daughter, one of the most brilliantly depicted characters in the film. She is a fantastic student who comes from a great family. However, at the end of the day, she experiments with drugs. It is this blatant truth that Traffic thrives in, and it is one that Soderbergh refuses to turn away from. Instead, he tackles it head-on and shows his characters very little mercy. This choice allows the story to resonate tenfold with viewers, rather than sugarcoat the problems being faced in reality.
On the other hand, there are moments where this film seems to fall flat. For example, Dennis Quaid portrays a lawyer in the DEA segment and is involved in a minor plot twist. While this should feel like a shock, he never gets fully developed during the course of the film, so the payoff does not have the gravitas that was intended. However, in a film that is 147 minutes, a misstep with a minor character is forgivable due to all the other major pieces on display.
Another interesting choice to note is the lack of physical convergence among the three plot lines. There are moments where characters are in proximity to one another, but it never leads to a cliché confrontation. Instead, repercussions of actions are felt throughout the intertwining stories. This grants Traffic an even greater sense of realism, which allows it to be separated from other films with a similar nature. The film progresses naturally due to this excellent pacing and using alternating segments that affect one another to move the plot forward.
Soderbergh seemingly crafted Traffic with a single question in mind: Is the war on drugs worth fighting for? He uses del Toro to illustrate the complete corruption in Mexico. He shows Douglas in meetings with politicians blatantly stating cartels cannot be competed with. Cheadle is confronted with the reality of his DEA position, and how futile it is. It’s not very hard to surmise Soderbergh’s answer to this. And the most telling aspect of this authentic film is its ending. Many of the character arcs are shown to be completed, yet, the problem the film tackles still persists overall. Traffic remains grounded in reality by allowing the viewer to question what happens next, without ever giving a definite answer. How many similar stories are occurring 18 years later? Is the war on drugs still worth fighting even after all this time? Those who are looking for an honest depiction of this question should look no further.
Are you watching any other Soderbergh films to become prepped for High Flying Bird next month? What is your favorite Soderbergh film? Let us know down below!
Traffic is a part of The Criterion Collection.