For the Best Director Oscar Steven Soderbergh received, he crafted one of his most sprawling and challenging efforts. Traffic, based on the British TV series of the same name, is an incendiary look at the drug war split between four interlocking plot lines, each realized with its own distinct visual palette. The film has a mammoth cast of characters and hyperdense storytelling, but Soderbergh finds a way to keep things moving at a readable pace. There’s a lot of real world data squeezed into the info-dump dialogue, but the intricacies of drug trafficking and geopolitics are just an excuse to explore something baser.

Rather than the polemic tone of Oliver Stone or the early work of Alejandro González Iñárritu, where the intersection of disparate plot threads is somehow its own reward, Soderbergh builds on Stephen Gaghan’s script to curate a prismatic view of human entanglement.

At the outset, each of the four arcs has its own tonal identity. The Mexico story, following Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a state police officer drawn into working for crooked General Salazar, has a sickly, burnt yellow hue. It feels like living under oppressive, omnipresent sunlight. This plot has a mirror in San Diego, where DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán) capture drug dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) in hopes of turning him on his boss. This thread comes off like a less harshly baked version of the Mexico drama, removed from the high stakes frontier of Tijuana here in the domesticated Californian morass.

Also in San Diego, there’s Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a resourceful woman whose husband, Carlos (Steven Bauer), is the boss Gordon and Castro are after. His arrest brings her “Real Housewives” life crashing down around her, with uncertain handheld camera movements feeling like Reality TV gone to hell. The fourth narrative strand concerns newly minted drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a conservative judge taking over from James Brolin’s weary general. Wakefield has a professional morality about his place in fighting the war on drugs, hilariously undercut by the fact that his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) spends the majority of her screen time freebasing cocaine with her boyfriend, Seth (Topher Grace).

As each tale unfolds, the dividing lines between these individual worlds crumble away, revealing this world to be little more than a vast network of cause and effect domino collapses. There’s no gangster movie cool on display to spice up the proceedings and any Just Say No pontification is hastily shown to be high level hypocrisy. There’s no sense that the battle to stop the sale of illegal drugs is any real kind of war, but rather a knotty bundle of societal give-and-take lubricated by the occasional assistance of narcotic respite. It shows the financial and violent byproducts of the drug war are just as rooted in systemic failings of capitalism as much as an inherent self-destruction of human nature.

There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene when Seth, Caroline’s prep school junkie boyfriend, sets Wakefield right for referring to a poor neighborhood with classist derision. In his uniquely irritating voice, Seth outlines the never-ending supply and demand of bored, disaffected white youth sauntering into primarily black spaces, interrogating strangers to score their highs. It’s one small example of Traffic refusing to place the blame on any one root cause, but rather to showcase the laundry list of pressure points life lays bare to be exploited by addiction and greed.

The film is full of these kinds of reversals and epiphanies. The two and a half hour run time features less plot progression than it does a persistent fog of beside-the-point asides, offering a hazy veil that suppresses some pretty obvious truths. From the beginning of the Mexico storyline, the high-reaching corruption isn’t foreshadowed so much as blatantly telegraphed. There are no twists to be had or late period paradigm shifts. Traffic is anchored by a tragic kind of inevitability clawing through a mountain of bullshit erected to keep you too docile to perceive the bigger picture.

That could manifest as a dinner party Wakefield attends full of real life congressmen spewing cherry-picked statistics designed to mask their narcissism within a cloak of heroic superiority. For Agent Gordon, it could be the lies he tells himself about how important his job is, when deep down he knows he’s just a cog in an unstoppable degradation machine. At times, Traffic even seems to casually posit that chemical stimulation is an acceptable evil necessary to process living in modern reality, and this maze of concentric self-interest circles leaves behind more bodies than the national overdose average.

Upon release, this murky gray area was a fresh burst of cynicism in mainstream crime thrillers, but with multiple viewings, the real triumph comes from Soderbergh’s creative choices. A lesser director might have made this a scope-minded epic, sweeping in its immensity. But Soderbergh crashes the aesthetic distance with his handheld camera work and uncomfortably close sight lines. Even the litany of recognizable movie stars on display gets foreshortened into his vision of a hyperreal pastiche of our own world. It’s not a faux documentary style, but a hurried, ever present reality unfolding at harsh speeds.

Soderbergh would go on to experiment even more wildly in later films, but Traffic might be the high-water mark for that restless sense of invention perfectly dovetailing with the zeitgeist.

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