Traffic: Old and New Paradigms

In 2000, of the five Best Picture nominees, the only contemporary saga, dealing with the contentious issue of drug wars across the American and Mexican borders, was Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, a richly complex chronicle of the drug war that’s also stylistically innovative.

Yet 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’s 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 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. That’s good entertainment, and good box-office. Is there a better combination

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback, 2003)