Traffic takes on the complex issues involved with the war on drugs in the United States and Mexico from the view of these nations as a whole to the very personal level. In the film, three stories unfold to illustrate the near impossibility of ever stopping the drug trade, despite the billion dollars that the US spends each year for just that cause. While the tales are related, the characters rarely, if ever, cross paths with one another. This is one of the elements that allows Soderbergh to deliver his message so effectively.
The first story features Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez. A cop in Baja, Mexico, he enforces the law and allows the wheels to be greased from time to time. After pulling off a huge drug bust on the Juarez drug cartel, the powerful General Salazar swoops in to confiscate all of the drugs and the credit. Later, Javier and his partner are recruited by Salazar to fight the war on drugs by aiding him in bringing down the Obregon cartel that has plagued Tijuana for some time.
Meanwhile, back in the States, Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) of the Ohio Supreme Court is about to be appointed by the President as the nation's new leader in the drug war. For the judge, the drug war is about to become more personal than he could ever have imagined.
In San Diego, Monty (Don Cheadle) and Ray (Luis Guzman) are two federal agents perpetrating a drug bust on a slimy drug supplier named Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). The events that follow lead them up the drug food chain to Carlos Ayala, a well-to-do suburban man who has been smuggling illegal drugs into the country from Mexico. His arrest leaves his pregnant wife, Helena (Katherine Zeta-Jones, who was really pregnant during the film), to fend for herself while taking care of their son, court costs, and a $3 million dollar debt to the drug lords in Mexico.
Traffic, written by Simon Moore (the writer for the British miniseries, Traffik, upon which this script is based), is superbly crafted and woven. We learn just enough about each character to give us some insight into their motives for the courses they choose to follow. By the films end, matters are not neatly wrapped up; there is not a fairy tale ending. This simply adds to the realism of the issues presented within the movie. Furthermore, the intertwining stories drive home the fact that drugs are closer to you than you think.
The script is bolstered by the phenomenal, ensemble cast. Zeta-Jones and Del Toro have both received Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Actor in a drama for their roles in this film. Don Cheadle is superb in his role. Michael Douglas gives his usual performance while Erika Christensen does a good job as his daughter. Topher Grace (of TV's That 70's Show) is excellent as her upper-class, druggie boyfriend. Dennis Quid's character, while played adequately, is underused.
The stories were shot using various filters and lenses, neatly separating them as the film went from one to another and adding to the viewing pleasure of the movie. Mexico is filmed through a hand held camera and yellow lens to give it a dry, grainy, shaky look that heightens the feel of unrest involved with Del Toro's situation. Douglas' story is initially filmed in a hue of solemn, comforting blue. Zeta-Jones' story is filmed without the use of lenses, suggesting that her situation and actions are the most realistic and achievable of all those presented.
Despite some dialogue that spouts off statistics and seems a bit preachy, Traffic ranks among the top ten films of 2000, surpassing even Soderbergh's other venture, Erin Brokovich. Don't be surprised if this film picks up the Oscar for Best Picture.
By film's end, the message is clear and powerful. The fight against drugs is a long, uphill battle, but it is better than no battle at all.