Traffic (2000): Soderbegh’s Oscar-Winning Tale of Drugs and Crimes

In 2000, of the five Best Picture Oscar nominees, the only contemporary saga, dealing with the contentious issue of drug wars across the American and Mexican borders, was Soderbergh’s Traffic, a detailed but unsubtle chronicle, boasting a large ensemble of terrific actors, yet too conventional for its own good to qualify as an artistic achievement–or urgent social-message picture.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Stephen Gaghan’s refurbished script was based on the far superior “Traffik,” the five-hour British TV mini-series about drug trafficking from Pakistan to the UK via many other countries, dealers, and players.

Soderbergh provided the best description of his film, when he depicted it as “‘Nashville’ meets ‘The French Connection.'” What he neglected to see or to say was that the saga was full of cliches, and that in trying to present a blanaced view of both drug-enforcement officials and drug-policy critics, he might have pleased no one.

Which may explain why “Traffic” was successful as populist entertainment, grossing over $200 million globally, but never stirred the expected controversy about the drug issue and problems in the U.S.

A closer look at Soderbergh’s ambitious movie, which tells not one but three stories, and with a huge and amazing cast, shows that it, too, is a compromising and old-fashioned narrative, albeit in a different way from “Erin Brockovich,” Soderbergh’s other contender in competition.

“Traffic” may well be the most exciting and complex American movie of the year, but it is marred by a soft and balanced last reel that somehow negates the story’s predominantly tough and bleak tone. In treating a polemic issue in personalized, individualistic manner, by centering on the intergenerational strain between a new drug czar, a Ohio State Supreme Court Justice (played by Michael Douglas) and his drug-addicted teenage daughter, Traffic follows the tradition of most social-problem films (All the President’s Men, The China Syndrome, Wall Street) that reduce and deflate ills of the social system to an easier-to-comprehend individual problems.

Film after film suggests that any problem, political or economic, can be treated and often resolved in individual terms by an ordinary personality. Never mind that “ordinary” in Hollywood terms means casting an attractive star like Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in the past, and this year Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Traffic.”

As Traffic’s multi-layered narrative unfolds, the initially established mysteries, double meanings, and ambiguities gradually give way to an orderly narrative that goes out of its way not to upset its viewers too much.

Ultimately, Traffic, despite the tripartite view of the drug war and commerce across the border–with its deceptively inventive color schemes–is too simplistic and too conventional to qualify as a great–or even good–film.  The last act, with Michael Douglas’ lengthy speech is phony in its reassuring tone.

Once again, Soderbergh disappoints artistically with a middlebrow fare that’s good entertainment, and good box-office, too. Is there a better combination (or recipe) in Hollywood for gaining attention and Oscar awards?

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay (Adapted): Stephen Gaghan
Supporting Actor: Benicio Del Toro
Film Editing: Stephen Mirrione

Oscar Awards: 4

“Traffic” won all but the Best Picture Oscar.

Oscar Context

In 200O, “Traffic” competed for the Best Picture with “Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Erin Brockovich,” and “Gladiator,” which won.


Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Laura Bickford
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on Traffik by Simon Moore
Music by Cliff Martinez
Cinematography: Peter Andrews (Socerbergh)
Edited by Stephen Mirrione
Distributed by USA Films
Release date: December 27, 2000
Running time: 147 minutes
Budget: $46 million
Box office: $208.3 million