The sad truth that colors every moment of "Traffic," Steven Soderbergh's distressingly clear-eyed take on the so-called War on Drugs, comes through most clearly in one of the film's last lines, as a shell-shocked veteran of the conflict tries to rationalize what's going on.
"If there is a war on drugs," this fighter says, "then many members of our family are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
A scathing, wearying and ultimately frustrating dissection of the Sisyphean conflict, "Traffic" benefits from strong performances, sure-handed direction and explosive subject matter: It's every bit as thrilling and engrossing as the best spy thriller or cop flick. And if it sometimes belabors the obvious, or if its insights seem less than revelatory, the ferocity of the narrative easily overcomes those shortcomings.
Based on a British documentary series that followed a drug route from Pakistan to Great Britain, "Traffic" follows three separate story threads.
In the first, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) has just been named the new U.S. Drug Czar. But his elation over the appointment soon gives way to the reality that he's in for nothing but frustration - a fate first suggested to him by his predecessor, a battle-weary general (James Brolin, one of several name actors in small roles), who's finally met an enemy he can't vanquish.
Wakefield quickly learns firsthand what he's up against: a vast bureaucracy full of well-intentioned suits without a clue (at a cocktail party, several real-life senators, including Orrin Hatch, offer cliches disguised as advice); a political game of one-upmanship where protocol means more than results; and an intelligence community that knows less than the average street-level dealer.
There's also the little matter of Wakefield's daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a bored teen over-achiever whose greatest joy is freebasing with her boorish, privileged friends. She's being protected by her mother (Amy Irving), who believes drugs are a phase she'll grow out of.
Thread 2 follows Mexican policeman Javier Rodriguez (a shatteringly conflicted Benicio Del Toro), who struggles to remain both honest and honorable. That's not easy when the community you've sworn to serve regards drugs as an easy way to get rich. Rodriguez ends up in service to the wily General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who heads up Mexico's anti-drug effort, but whose motives - not to mention methods - seem questionable.
Strand 3 centers on Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle), a wise-cracking narcotics cop who collars a mid-level operative in a major San Diego drug ring, and Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of the drug kingpin brought to trial as a result of that arrest. Gordon's job is to see that everything goes as planned at the trial, which means keeping his newfound witness alive to testify. Helena Ayala's job, as she sees it, is to keep her family safe and living at the level of comfort to which they've become accustomed.
Director Soderbergh, who's having a fine year - he's been nominated for Golden Globes for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" - shoots each of his story threads differently. The scenes in Mexico are over-lit, muting the colors (everything gets a yellowish tinge) and draining vitality. By comparison, the slightly overexposed San Diego scenes with Zeta-Jones appear deceptively welcoming, while the bleak, blue-tinged Washington scenes betray an almost documentary feel. The result not only distinguishes one story-line from another, but also helps the audience characterize them. It's too bad Soderbergh, working from a screenplay by Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement"), can't resist easy potshots. For instance, the first two or three shots of Wakefield drinking say plenty about the hypocrisy of decrying one drug while depending on another. Do we really need another half-dozen more? In the same vein, at least five characters expound on the senselessness of the whole drug war. One good monologue would have been sufficient.
And the stereotype of the prom queen/straight-A student/cheerleader as druggie is one that should probably be retired from films. Aren't average kids in as grave danger?
Still, "Traffic" is a terrific movie about fighting a war where the enemies are just about everybody, where alliances shift almost daily, and where nothing anyone does makes much of a difference.
Starring Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released by USA Films
Running time 147 minutes
Rated R (Violence, language, drug use, sexual situations
Sun score: *** 1/2