Traffic: Layers & The Next chapter in the career Steven Soderbergh

by Gregster

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As we open up on “Traffic” we are placed in the middle of a war that is failing, the war on drugs. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film is a masterpiece that shows the culmination of experimentation over the first half of his career. As Andrew Sarris proclaimed in his review of the film, “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” (Sarris). The film also is one of the great commentaries on drug culture and the war on drugs with only Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” being of equal emotional impact.

“Traffic” is at face value a highly commercial crime thriller, yet it’s experimentation and risks is what makes it independent. The film is the forerunner in hyperlink cinema a movement in cinematic storytelling in which everything and everyone is connected. This is perhaps the best type of story to use this storytelling technique because it goes from the dealers, DEA, Justice system all the way to the addicts. Soderbergh helps keep the many stories together by his use of color temperature, film stock and shutter speed in each storyline to differentiate between. The risk also is having one of the storylines being done principally in the Spanish language. “Traffic” presents the war on drugs as more complex than ‘just say no’. The cops in Mexico can’t do their job because corruption of officials who are making money with the cartels. The absolute ruthlessness of the cartels makes it impossible for DEA and the judicial system to make cases cause of the murders of witnesses.

The story of “Traffic” works on every level. On one level it’s a social commentary. On another it’s a crime drama on level with “The French Connection” and “The Godfather”. It also is a family drama. The levels of the story shows the audience that the drug war and drug culture effect on society is political, legal/ illegal all the way to your own family. It goes for an immediacy that allows for both commentary and an intense cinematic experience.

Though I found the story involving Michael Douglas character going rogue to find his daughter and threatening drug dealers to be very melodramatic, its very much true to fact on an emotional and personal level in what happens to parents of drug users. Douglas finds his daughter stoned and having sexually degraded herself in exchange for drugs.  It is this of all the storylines is that gives the film its soul, every audience member has been a child or could be a parent as compared to a DEA agent or a drug lord so we are able to see at a personal level what the drug wars and drug culture have on society in the micro social group of the family.

In terms of the level of the film as a crime drama it perhaps has one of the most interesting twists on a crime family. Helena is a character who very much rings true of how ruthless these cartels are and what they are willing to do to keep their comfortable lifestyle going.  Another thing that is interesting about that character is her rose-colored sunglass approach she does not see the long lasting implications of her husband being a drug lord she just cares about keeping her nice upper middle class existence going. She is the opposite of Kay Corleone in “The Godfather” or even Carmela Soprano in which both women are either disgusted or have moments of guilt in who their husbands are and what they do to give them such an affluent life, Helena becomes her husband she becomes as ruthless as her husband and in many ways is much more dangerous than her husband. This storyline ends perhaps the best of all the storylines because the fact is these people while they may have gotten away this time they will not next time. In many ways they have made the situation for themselves worse since they have the blood of a DEA agent on their hands.

In terms of where “Traffic” is in Soderbergh’s career it is the beginning towards the next step in his career. “Traffic” shows Soderbergh changing his approach to filmmaking after being a great formalist director for the first ten years of his career. Soderbergh called the film his Dogma film regarding Lars Von Trier’s cinema movement towards a truthful cinema:

“I don’t know Von Trier; I’ve never talked to him. But I certainly felt that I was becoming a formalist and that’s a real dead end. So I felt the need to break radically from that way of working, and clearly he did, too. Because his earlier films were machined to the point of insanity, unbelievable precision. Obviously, he just felt like that goes nowhere.” (Kaufman)

It makes more sense now that Soderbergh went for the quasi-documentary approach to “Traffic” because this is not a film that if done in a formalist way the immediacy that the story calls for would not exist. The fact that he was one of the camera operators on the films helps the immediacy because we are seeing it through the director’s vision literally what he chooses to focus his camera on.  This docudrama technique is different than say “Battle of Algiers” which used stationary camera as opposed to Soderbergh’s choice of kinetic camera movement and editing.  Soderbergh further admitted that he studied the films of Ken Loach who is known for a similar documentary aesthetic to his films:

“I looked at how he would frame, how far away he would be, what the length of the lens was, how tight the eyelines would be, depending on where the characters were. I noticed that there’s a space that’s inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic.” (Hope)

Watching the film it does not have really any moment of theatrical composition even in the sequences of action and suspense they feel like they are from a documentary or even footage from news cameras.

Because of experimentation and risk Soderbergh accomplished a film that every filmmaker wishes to have which is a film that fulfills artistic needs along with being an engaging piece of entertainment. “Traffic” is a landmark in American cinema that gave a different side to the issue of the drug wars by not making it a black and white issue or right wing and left wing cause it made it what the problem is a human issue.