THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The quintessential scene in Traffic takes place on an airplane. The country's new drug czar, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), confers with his team about new ways of tackling the drug problem. For the duration of the flight, he tells them, everyone is free to "think outside of the box" -- to come up with any idea imaginable, no matter how outrageous or bizarre. Despite his decree, everyone just sits silently, not knowing what to say. That moment more or less sums up the problem in real life; we're obviously losing the war on drugs, and nobody knows what to do about it.

In many ways, Traffic is one of the most important films of recent years. It examines our national drug problem on many different levels, leaving the audience with an accurate picture of what we're up against. It's hard to walk away from this film feeling apathetic. You leave inclined to think about and debate the issue. I can't imagine a more provocative movie than this one, especially since director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich) avoids preachiness and the suggestion of easy answers. Instead, he focuses on depicting the problem in its various forms, from international trafficking to the problems we face in our own homes.

Michael Douglas fights the war against drugs but loses the battle in his own backyard in Traffic
Wakefield is one of the major characters in the movie. He's an Ohio Supreme Court justice who is appointed drug czar. Intent on winning the war on drugs, he doesn't realize that he's losing the battle in his backyard. His teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has recently taken up freebasing cocaine with her friends. Wakefield is stunned when he learns what's going on. Initially, he tries to bully his daughter into stopping, as though brute force will solve the problem. Caroline, however, is nurturing a full-blown addiction and can't just quit. (The storyline mirrors the larger problem, with Wakefield representing the legal system and his daughter representing the addict who needs rehabilitation rather than incarceration.)

Another important character is Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a Mexican cop who does border patrol and inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a war between two cartels. Rodriguez tries to do the right thing, but he is surrounded by various forms of corruption. His partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas) falls prey to the seductive nature of the drug business, which further complicates Rodriguez's view of what's morally decent.

Then there's Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a pregnant wife and mother who is stunned to learn that her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) is a major drug trafficker. Helena finds herself in trouble after Carlos is arrested. He owes money to some higher-ups, and they put the onus on her to pay it back. This story is particularly tragic as poor Helena is forced to change from innocent woman to pusher by virtue of necessity. Constantly on her tail are DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman). They believe she may have known what her husband was up to, so they keep her under constant surveillance.

Traffic is smart enough to realize several important things about the drug problem. First, it affects all different aspects of society, from the rich and elite to the poor and destitute. Second, it has an insidious way of sucking people in. There's no such thing as a stereotypical addict because addiction can happen to anyone. Third, there is so much money to be made in the drug trade that we may never eradicate it completely. Corruption and the promise of a big payday make it something hard to fight; there are those who have a vested interest in keeping the problem alive.

These are weighty issues for one movie, but Soderbergh (and writer Steven Gaghan) balance them with expert precision. Each of the film's subplots is developed fully, and they all parallel one another in some way. One of the film's main points seems to be that the different facets of the problem are entangled with one another, making it an even more difficult thing to combat. Fighting a so-called "war on drugs" doesn't just mean fighting drug kingpins; it also means fighting husbands and wives, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends.

Rather than trying to find answers that don't exist, Traffic ties everything together in a more realistic way. When the credits start to roll, we are given the impression that the war on drugs is made up of millions of battles. Some are big and some are small. Some of them we will win and some we will lose. But the problem will go on, if for no other reason than that it has rolled on for decades, gathering the momentum of an out-of-control locomotive. This is our problem, and we're stuck with it.

( out of four)

Traffic is rated R for pervasive drug content, strong language, violence and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 27 minutes.
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