Steven Soderbergh's magnum opus on the drug war, Traffic offers yet another one of the director's efforts to take conventionally engrossing, Hollywood-formula material and imbue it with a sense of authenticity, unpredictability, and vitality, much as he did with his wildly successful Erin Brockovich earlier in the year. Some seams still show -- namely, the all-too-ironic script conceit that the country's new drug czar happens to have an addict for a daughter -- but by and large, Traffic is issue-oriented storytelling of the highest order. To call the film a tour de force would be misleading; it's an intimate epic, and Soderbergh seems determined to make all of the script's grand statements resonate on a personal level. To this end, he's helped by his stable of performers: Michael Douglas is appropriately stiff as the conservative Ohio judge who learns he's in over his head in his new position; Catharine Zeta-Jones makes a believable transformation from naïve, pampered housewife to hard-edged schemer; Erika Christensen takes the aforementioned addict-daughter character and makes it her own, suggesting that habitual abuse can arise from the most banal of circumstances; and Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman provide subtle shadings to what could have been a standard buddy-cop routine. Best of all is Benicio Del Toro, whose cunning, straight-arrow cop, Javier Rodriguez, provides the film's heart and soul. Soderbergh's cinematography (credited under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) complements the performers, eschewing establishing shots, grandiose camerawork, and traditional Hollywood framing in favor of simple shifts in color and film stock to indicate place, mood, and time. Steven Mirrone's editing also flatters the audience's ability to make connections on their own, halting scenes as soon as a point has been made, and allowing others to linger onscreen to create palpable atmosphere. Instead of favoring the loud, overbearing rhythms which accompany most hot-button "issue films," Soderbergh quietly and consistently tightens his vice grip on the audience, allowing a breather only in the film's semi-hopeful dénouement. Though it may provide all of the pleasures of conventionally grand melodrama, Traffic feels unlike any epic that has come before it.
by Michael Hastings review