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Traffic: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Traffic: Criterion Collection

March 13, 2006

Director: Steven Soderbergh,
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Luis Guzmán, Don Cheadle, Miguel Ferrer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Jacob Vargas, Steven Bauer, ,

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DVD Review

By the time he made Traffic (2000), Steven Soderbergh was at the zenith of his popularity having just come off the crowd pleaser, yet socially conscious Erin Brockovich (2000), with an even more powerful critique on a problem that plagues the United States – the war on drugs. He depicts it on a macro and micro level with a masterful command of craft. Soderbergh does it in a way that isn’t preachy, making a movie that simultaneously entertains and has something to say.

Traffic is comprised of three storylines. The first one starts off in Mexico with two police officers, Javier (Del Toro) and his partner (Vargas) as they deal with the drug cartels and their corrupt superiors who are in league with them. The next story takes place in Ohio and Washington, D.C. as Judge Robert Wakefield (Douglas) has been appointed the new drug czar for the United States while his daughter (Christensen) freebases drugs with her boyfriend (Grace). The last story takes place in San Diego as two undercover cops (Cheadle and Guzman) arrest a middleman (Ferrer) of a drug cartel in the hopes that he’ll testify against his boss (Bauer) but when he is subsequently arrested, his wife (Zeta-Jones) takes control and learns how to deal with her tough, Mexican counterparts.

Soderbergh gives each storyline its own unique look so that it is easier to keep track of where we are and shows the distinction between the borders within the drug war as the film frequently jumps back and forth from each story. The Mexican one has a yellow, sunburnt look, the D.C. story adopts a cold, gun metal blue look and the San Diego one is the most realistic looking with no filters. The director utilizes extensive hand-held camerawork that not only gives this epic film a more intimate feel (because he can get right in there with the actors) but also gives certain scenes a sense of tension and urgency. It also gives the film a feeling of authenticity, a realness that comes from docudramas, like The Battle of Algiers (1966) which was a definite influence on this movie.

Each story illustrates the futility of trying to win this so-called war on drugs. The Mexico story shows how an honest lawman like Javier walks a dangerous line where he tries to make a difference while avoiding angering his corrupt superiors who would kill him if he doesn’t do what he’s told. The D.C. story shows how deeply drugs have infiltrated our society when an affluent politician’s daughter becomes a drug addict, going to the poor slums to get high. How can he win the war on drugs when he can’t even keep his own daughter away from it? The San Diego storyline shows how those at the top of the drug food chain are untouchable because they have the money to maintain a respectable façade and can afford the best lawyers money can buy to make any charges brought against them go away.

While it’s true that Traffic doesn’t really say anything new about the war on drugs, it does reinforce how prevalent drugs are in our society and show how clueless our government is in their attempts to stop it. The problem is that the infrastructure that is in place is dysfunctional so that even when honest men like Javier or Wakefield come along with the best of intentions, they become ensnarled in bureaucratic red tape. Traffic seems to suggest that the best that these men can do is make a difference in their own small pocket of the world, whether it is Javier brokering a deal so that his town gets baseball field and the ability to play games at night, or Wakefield finally making a personal connection with his daughter in a meaningful way. The drug problem will never go away no matter how much money and manpower our government throws at it.

Special Features:

On the first disc are three audio commentaries, the first being with director Steven Soderbergh and the film’s screenwriter Stephen Gaghan. Soderbergh, with his trademark dry, sardonic wit, touches upon how he achieved the various looks of the movie. He isn’t afraid to go into the technical aspects of the filmmaking process as he’s also Traffic’s cinematographer. He and Gaghan talk about how the screenplay evolved with the screenwriter talking about where the characters came from. Not surprisingly, Soderbergh dominates the track with some amusing anecdotes about filming in this commentary jam-packed with smart observations.

The second commentary track features producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Horskovitz and Laura Bickford and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien. Golden talks about how the film’s opening drug bust in Mexico was based on an actual event told to him by a Mexican police officer. He also points out which characters are based on real people and gives their backstories. Bickford and the other producers tend to speak about the film’s production history. Chretien was a high-ranking federal agent for the DEA and talks about the authenticity of the bungled San Diego bust scene. This is a very informative track with the consultants providing the most fascinating material.

The last commentary track is by the film’s composer Cliff Martinez who talks about his score in between the isolated tracks of music.

The second disc starts off with 25 deleted scenes with optional commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan. The two men do an excellent job putting this footage in the context of the movie and explain why it was cut. Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ characters suffered the most in the editing but a lot of this stuff was cut for reasons of time.

“Film Processing Demonstration” takes us through, step-by-step, how the filmmakers achieved the distinctive look of the Mexico sequences. Not surprisingly, digital technology was used to help achieve this look.

“Editing Demonstration” has the film’s editor Stephen Mirrione take us through four scenes and show how they were put together with editing. In one scene, he has five different takes or “layers” to choose from and has to decide what to use and then put it all together for a complete scene. This is fascinating insight into the process.

“Dialogue Editing Demonstration” features the film’s sound editor Larry Blake giving us a crash course in this craft. What most people don’t realize is that the dialogue we hear in a movie is often a combination of sound recorded at that moment and afterwards in the studio. For example, in one scene a radio could be heard in the background and so Blake had to edit it out and yet keep the dialogue that was recorded at the time – not as easy as one might think.

“Additional Footage” includes four scenes in their unedited form. You can watch these scenes from multiple angles. Most interesting of them all is the cocktail party scene in which Michael Douglas interacted with actual politicians, keeping in character while they were allowed to adlib.

Also included are two trailers and five T.V. spots.

Finally, there is a collection of rare, drug-detecting dogs trading cards. A cute, if somewhat frivolous extra.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 99%

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