Traffic (Criterion Collection) Review
Given the considerable success that Steven Soderbergh is currently enjoying both critically and at the box office, it seems astonishing to think that, a few years ago, he was being dismissed as yet another wunderkind director who had lost his way; such films as Kafka and The Underneath may have attracted critical plaudits, but nobody went to see them, and the utterly bizarre experimental Schizopolis attracted a mix of confusion and patronising amusement. Of course, thanks to the likes of Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich- polished, mainstream entertainment with big stars that might have been made by any of a dozen directors- his stock rose in Hollywood, and he was allowed to make this, which subsequently won him a best director Oscar; although one can quibble with the decision to award it to him rather than Ridley Scott for Gladiator, there is no denying that Traffic is an incredibly accomplished work, with superb acting bolstered by technical innovations throughout, even if the script is a short way from greatness.
As with the original British TV series, the plotline attempts to follow a series of disparate characters who occasionally interact with one another, often with ironic consequences. The first plotline concerns Javier (del Toro), who may or may not be the last honest cop in Mexico, and his involvement with the corrupt General Salazar. The second plotline deals with Robert Wakefield (Douglas), the newly appointed drugs czar and his daughter's (Christensen) slow descent into drug addiction via the instigance of her boyfriend Seth (Grace). In the last major storyline, the characters are Helena (Zeta Jones), a pregnant society lady who becomes reluctantly involved in the drugs trade after her husband (Bauer) is arrested, even as a pair of bickering cops (Cheadle and Guzman) are assigned to follow her.
Given the dearth of decent, literate 'entertainment' in modern day cinema, it takes a good couple of viewings to be able to appreciate Traffic fully, given the astonishing breadth (if not depth) of the world that Soderbergh and Gaghan present; from sordid inner city drug dens to addresses at the White House, all facets of modern American society are explored, and often found wanting, with the most obvious example being Wakefield's daughter's slow descent into drug addiction (which, according to Gaghan on the commentary, was directly based on his own experiences). The film is intelligent enough to touch on the exciting thriller aspects of the traditional drugs film- thus, we have Hitchcockian scenes of assassinations, bombings, shoot-outs and chases- but there is also a very measured sense throughout that there are no heroes in the drugs war, with those who strive to do right often being compelled to work hand in glove with the obvious villains.
The film was criticised on release for the subplot featuring Michael Douglas, which many critics found preachy and cliched. It is to Soderbergh and Douglas' credit that, although the storyline itself might be unoriginal, there's a desperation evoked by the superb performances that means that anyone who has either experimented with drugs while younger or, more resonantly, has ever been a parent to a child who has, will be able to recognise their own feelings and experiences, as the storyline moves to an intensely affecting scene of possible reconciliation. The Mexican storyline, with del Toro as a morally ambiguous figure, was widely acclaimed as being 'realistic', but in fact it's possibly the closest that the film comes to fudging its own lines; we never get a sense of what makes Javier tick, although del Toro's superb (and Oscar winning) performance helps to fill in the gaps somewhat, even as he is confronted by a hammy performance from Tomas Milian as General Salazar. Finally, the Zeta Jones plotline is excellently staged, thrillingly acted stuff, with great performances from her, Dennis Quaid as her husband's reptilian lawyer and, of course, Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, who riff on their various appearances in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson to very entertaining effect.
However, a great deal of the film's success lies in Soderbergh's direction. He has described the piece as his '$50 million Dogme film'; while this may seem a rather high-blown description for what is, ultimately, a mainstream picture with mainstream actors, the technical virtuosity that he brings to the piece is astonishing. Acting as his own director of photography under the pseudonym 'Peter Andrews', he adopts a gritty, bleached out tinge for the Mexican scenes, an almost Michael Mann-esque blue for the Wakefield plot, and a heightened, garish colour for the Helena storyline; although this could be seen as simply gimmickry, it does a nice job of highlighting each of the dominant emotions in each plot, and confirms that genuine risk-taking of this kind often pays off admirably. Soderbergh is also intelligent enough to ensure that the occasional moment of preaching in Gaghan's script is not too intrusive, but is instead incorporated seamlessly into the fabric of the film.
Ultimately, the highest praise one can pay to the film is that it feels as if it could have been made in the early 1970s, the so-called 'golden age' for dark, adult but mainstream filmmaking; there are conscious echoes of such works as The French Connection, The Godfather and, perhaps more subtly, the ensemble work of Robert Altman; Soderbergh has called the film his version of Nashville, and, although Traffic is far more focused and character-based than Altman's often rambling narrative, there is the same joy in the loose feeling of improvisation (apparently entirely staged, according to Soderbergh on the commentary), the development of at least a dozen three-dimensional characters whereas most films struggle to have one, and the fine performances; there isn't a weak link in the cast here, with a couple of career-best turns from Del Toro and Zeta Jones, as well as a fine, oily cameo from Quaid, who seems to have a great career as a character actor lined up for him after his split from Meg Ryan.
Although this is occasionally limited by its length (for once, two and a half hours feels too short) and the fact that it has to tie up the loose ends at the climax rather too neatly, there is no denying that this is certainly one of the best films of recent years, and one that stands repeated viewings; although Soderbergh's rise to the A-list may have been based on rather questionable grounds, such as the dull Erin Brockovich, this is a superb piece of filmmaking from beginning to end, and a worthy choice for entry into the Criterion Collection, where it has finally received the treatment it deserves.
According to the notes in the booklet, 'this new digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive using a Spirit Datacine'. However, it's hard to see any noticeable difference between this new print and the original R1 release, or even the R2 version; to be fair, the quality of all three transfers has been of a good level, with some very difficult source material coming across well. Only the occasional spot of speckling on the print takes this down a notch or two; the print grain in the Mexico scenes was intentional, and its use does not distract at all.
In an inspired, if rather strange idea, Soderbergh decided that the soundtrack to the film, apart from the music, should be recorded in mono, presumably to ensure that every cinema could showcase it adequately. Needless to say, this does not lead to an especially interesting soundtrack; the surround effects used are entirely music-based, and, although the dialogue and sound effects come across clearly and distinctly, this is unexciting stuff. The lack of a DTS option may distress some, but, given the film's presentation, this hardly needs one.
With some excellent recent releases to their credit, Criterion may well have realised that releasing a popular mainstream film wouldn't hurt their credibility or finances, and so their presentation of Traffic is very strong, with the supplements all deepening a viewer's appreciation of the film, as, of course, good supplements should do. On the first disc are three commentaries; as usual with these things, the most interesting is the one featuring the director, and so it proves to be here; Soderbergh and Gaghan are a very entertaining duo, as they discuss virtually every aspect of the film's production, release, critical reception, and, in the most interesting moments, Gaghan's own drug addiction and how it affected his writing. It's also pleasing that they don't insult the viewer's intelligence by assuming that they don't already know the story behind such matters as Michael Douglas' casting, which a quick visit to the IMDB will sort out for anyone who has genuinely never heard of the film's production. The producer's commentary track is very technical, but has some good moments when they focus on specific actors, such as Albert Finney, and their casting, and the composer's track is hilariously dull (at one point, Cliff Martinez, the man responsible, makes a joke and then explains that he has in fact made one; one half expects Mr Martinez, a veteran of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, to behave like the priest from Father Ted who can happily talk rubbish for hours to people who have homicidal feelings towards them.) However, the other two tracks do have some useful technical information contained within, and are worth at least a partial listen.
The second disc contains the meat of the supplements, which are decidedly mixed in their interest value. The deleted scenes are the same as on the R2 disc, but the commentary is consistently interesting and insightful, managing to go leagues beyond 'Oh, we cut this for reasons of time and pacing'; many of the scenes are excellent, and the film might have benefitted by their retention. The various 'demonstrations' of editing, processing and dialogue recording are all highly technical, and are likely to be of limited interest to the average layman; on the other hand, it's good to have supplements of such detail and depth on the DVD. The 'additional footage' is simply multi-angle coverage of the various scenes where the Wakefield character is having the drugs war explained to him by various real politicians, lobbyists and writers; there are flashes of interest, but there's an awful lot of staging and repetition here as well, with the more interesting and provocative comments clearly scripted. The disc rounds off with some not-bad, if rather action-oriented, trailers and a fun piece on the 'trading cards' used in detecting drugs. Overall, yet another superb collection of extras from Criterion.
A fine film, which lives up to multiple viewings, is presented on a technically strong disc with some intelligent and in-depth extras that will be of varying amounts of interest to the average viewer; whether technical demonstrations fascinate you or not, there's no denying that Criterion's commitment to putting such things on the disc in the first place is far more interesting than dull EPK footage. Highly recommended.