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Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Drugs, lies and policy debate


Rating: * * * * Director: Steven Soderbergh Running time: 148 minutes Language: English and Spanish (with subtitles in Japanese and English)Now showing

It's rare enough that Hollywood makes an issue film, rarer still when it's an ongoing debate and not one where history has already decided who the "good guys" were. But director Steven Soderbergh's latest, "Traffic" -- which landed him this year's Oscar for best director -- is just such a film, a hard-edged look at the realities of the so-called war on drugs in Mexico and America. Like "Wag the Dog," it's one of those few films that can actually force people to reconsider the line the government feeds them.

Beniclo Del Toro in "Traffic"

"Traffic" is essentially three films in one: Benicio Del Toro plays an embattled cop in Mexico City, giving us a frontline view of the corruption that makes a moral stance nearly impossible; Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the wife of a jailed San Diego drug kingpin who's under pressure by the feds to spill the beans and by the drug gangs to fork up some cash; and Michael Douglas plays the president's drug czar caught between Washington's official hardline policy on drugs and his more forgiving instincts as a parent with a daughter on dope.

Soderbergh fashions a taut cops-vs.-dealers drama that intercuts skillfully between these three strands. While it's not exactly Costa-Gavras ("Missing"), "Traffic" is agit-prop: It forces us to examine the effects of drug policy on individuals, as opposed to the abstractions that policymakers prefer. We see how every character, no matter how principled, is pressured by larger forces to conform to the current paradigm, be that the posturing "tough-on-crime" approach of U.S. politicians or the opposite attitude of Mexican authorities.

Ironically, both display a similar disregard for the actual welfare of drug-users: A U.S. senator at a cocktail party defends the government's punishment-over-treatment approach by saying "addicts don't vote," while a Mexican general suggests "addicts treat themselves. They overdose and there's one less to worry about."

"Traffic's" thesis is that the drug trade is endemic and the current approach is clearly not working. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("NYPD Blue") stuffs the script full of salient points from a multitude of perspectives -- law enforcement, criminal, user -- but things get a bit sound-bitey as a result.

Platitudes abound: The drug czar's daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), tells an AA meeting how "for someone my age, it's easier to get drugs than alcohol," while an apprehended dealer (Miguel Ferrer) tells the cops that "in Mexico, law enforcement is an entrepreneurial career." But given that most mainstream films on the drug problem are no more profound than "South Park's" Mr. Mackey ("Drugs are bad, mmkay?"), "Traffic" has a lot of ground to cover.

Many critics have swooned over this voice of reason and praised "Traffic" as a groundbreaking indictment of the bankruptcy of America's "war on drugs." Well, it is and it isn't. There's little said here that hasn't graced the op-ed pages of most intelligent newspapers over the past decade, while the film's portrayal of addiction is only slightly above caricature. After straight-A student Caroline takes her first toke on a joint, it's only days before she's a strung-out crack-whore, sleeping with her brutish dealer in the ghetto for a fix. Realism? "Reefer Madness" redux is more like it.

Excusing such excesses is Soderbergh's confident direction, which is refreshingly mature and free of bombast. His free-flowing quasidocumentary style makes scenes feel more dropped-in on than planned, and it's just the antidote to the factoid-heavy script.

Similarly, Soderbergh -- in a throwback to the style that marked '70s filmmaking -- knows how to make his high-profile cast come off as real people, not L.A.-screenwriter versions of them. They reward him with some finely tuned, naturalistic performances, which bring an emotional gravitas to the exquisitely tense drama being played out.

Best of all is Benicio Del Toro: He displays the hangdog world-weariness of a man who would like to do the right thing, but is all too aware of the consequences. He walks a fine line between drug mafia hit men and Mexican army torturers, trying to do his job while keeping his naive partner from getting sucked into the cesspool of corruption. Like Gene Hackman in "The French Connection," we feel that Del Toro is no super-cop, but just an ordinary guy who is forced to take extraordinary risks. Subtle performances like these rarely take home Oscars, but Del Toro happily proved to be an exception this year.

The cop, the wife, the drug czar -- every character in "Traffic" is forced to choose between personal loyalties and the larger question of legal duty. In every case, they choose the personal. This is in fact the film's main point, that any policy that requires people to act against those closest to them will result in failure. Even a drug czar won't arrest his daughter, he'll take her to rehab.

Despite the best efforts of the "Just Say No" movement in the U.S., the idea of an Orwellian society -- of turning in your loved ones to the authorities for thought crimes (which is what altering one's consciousness represents) -- has yet to take hold. As "Traffic" suggests, it probably never will.

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