The Chemicals between us

Hollywood has increasingly become forgetful, willfully or otherwise, of the role of art as a powerful vehicle for social criticism.

Despite whatever economic hiccoughs may have been brought on by a presidential election, the most visible and politically economically potent slice of America – the white suburban middle- and upper-class – has little reason to fret over society’s failings; things are working out fine enough for them. In such a situation as this, people turn towards art that entertains them without suggesting that anything may be wrong with the world. The movie industry makes most of its money off of these customers, and they know it, and so accordingly they produce pieces of distracting fluff. It may even be excellently crafted distracting fluff (Shakespeare in Love, Cider House Rules), but fluff it is, and fluff will never fill the necessary role of social critic.

It is this environment that makes Traffic such a refreshing movie, and a reminder of film’s status as the most under-harnessed of all vehicles for cultural exploration.

Traffic blends together, with differing degrees of fluidity and coherence, four different storylines, all dealing with the trafficking of illegal drugs across the Mexico/U.S. border. Michael Douglas leads an excellent ensemble cast as Robert Wakefield, the newly appointed U.S. drug czar whose assumption of the role of commander-in-chief of America’s War on Drugs coincides with the discovery that his daughter is a heroin addict. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a housewife who discovers that her family’s material comfort comes courtesy of her husband’s status as drug trade kingpin; after his arrest she slides, with frightful ease, into the his role. The couple is being pursued by a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman). Meanwhile, Mexican police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) tries to cope with his own temptations in a world of lawless lawmen.

These stories intersect at times, giving the film fleeting bits of cohesion; generally, however, it falls on the audience to juggle mentally four different sets of characters and circumstances. This proves too tall an order at times, and the Rodriguez storyline especially often leaves the audience wondering what’s going on.

Director Steven Soderbergh lends the audience a hand at times through visual conventions; for instance, all scenes in Mexico are shot in a hazy, yellow-washed style, and Wakefield’s storyline is glazed in a visually muffling blue-white sheen. Traffic’s tendency toward indie-style visuals begs comparison to Three Kings, and although it may be impossible to intuit precisely what Soderbergh intends with each stylized shot, the final result is a film of intelligence and artistic substance.

The need for four nearly independent storylines comes from the filmmakers’ obvious desire not to take a side in the issue. Traffic does not condemn the War on Drugs, nor does it endorse it; similarly, drug traffickers are depicted neither as devils nor simple capitalists. The movie’s clearest intention is to alert the audience to the degree to which illegal drugs have infiltrated our society, and allow us the freedom to act or sit complacently.

Traffic is not a flawless movie; it can be unwieldy and confusing, visually indulgent, and the dialogue tends toward the over-dramatic. What it lacks in the particulars, however, it more than makes up for in intention and intelligence.