Traffic is the perfect example of a film that is so artfully telling and insightful that it has the potential to stir a debate that would actually have long-lasting consequences on our society. Through the intricacies of several parallel stories, the viewers come to a broad understanding of the inner workings of the drug industry. The stories all link to each other, and their connections are so meager yet so powerful that the metaphor to the real world cannot be avoided – first, the drug law enforcement industry supports the criminal industry through bribes and kickoffs. Next, politicians support the system as a whole because of concerns for publicity and candidacy. Finally, the addicted victims of the drug plague are seen as criminals, and as such justify the continuation of the drug law enforcement, and the entire chain repeats itself endlessly.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film made sure that each drug category is represented through the characters in the movie. Two Mexican cops, the corrupt Manolo (Vargas) and the honest Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) represent the law enforcement south of the border, while two DEA agents, Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) represent it on the side of the U.S. A businessman in disguise, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is a drug lord, but while he is arrested, his wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta Jones) takes over the illegal business. But the main story, so to speak, is that of Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who is appointed to be president of the drug control policy office. Ironically, or rather tragically, Wakefield’s daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a successful honors student, becomes a hard-core drug addict. Many more characters fill a small, but important role. But whether small or big, every character is linked to each other through their involvement in the drug world.
What strikes me most about this film is the humane side of the drug world. Mob films with lots of action in them often create a false, not to say romanticized, conception of this dark, ugly world. But this film is different. Here the war against drugs is frustrating and truly dangerous for all sides, the addiction itself is portrayed as it is – a disease, and all hope seems to fade when the once confident Wakefield loses face when his daughter catches the disease. But not everything is lost. In the last scene when Rodriguez gets his wish- to have a safe place for the children of the neighborhood to play softball- there we find real hope.