The daily struggles of modern life breed a certain amount of complacency. Going to work, getting food on the table, taking care of your family, paying your bills. There is a rhythm to this, and a steadily creeping exhaustion. Capitalism distorts individual priorities, infecting whatever time or attention you might have devoted to any other aspects of your life with a persistent desire for more. More money. More prestige. And whoever you step on to get there? Well, fuck them. They should have stepped on you first.
Too often, that slippery striving—and the soullessness that can arise as a result of it—are met with a shrug. Feckless platitudes like “That’s just the cost of doing business” or “It is what it is” are meant to make us feel better about the increasingly yawning gap between the powerful and the powerless. How satisfying, then, when anyone dares to kick the hornet’s nest, and when our pop culture does more than just maintain the status quo. Tony Gilroy did it with Michael Clayton (“Do I look like I’m negotiating?”); Andrew Dominik did it with Killing Them Softly (“America is not a country. It’s just a business. Now pay me.”); Todd Haynes did it with Dark Waters (“The system is rigged!”); Bong Joon-ho did it with Parasite (“They are nice because they are rich.”). And Steven Soderbergh has been doing this his whole damn career.
Every few years, Soderbergh presents to us a portrait of individual resistance: Erin Brockovich, Che, The Informant, High Flying Bird, The Laundromat. They’re not all perfect (Meryl Streep in brownface in the latter film was a particularly bad move), but they’re organized by a guiding principle: that there is dignity in taking on the unjust, in making life hell for the elite, and in defending the people who might not be able to fight back for themselves. Erin Brockovich serving Hinkley’s poisoned water to PG&E’s short-changing lawyers. Che sharing an orange with a comrade in a moment of quiet solidarity. Ray Burke outsmarting the NBA team owners and their “game on top of a game.” Soderbergh’s filmography is built on these subversive moments, and 20 years on, Traffic remains his most ambitiously sprawling examination of the failures of our trusted institutions.
The decade before Soderbergh took on Traffic was populated first by the indie character studies that announced his arrival (Sex, Lies, and Videotape; King of the Hill) and then by the kind of jazzy genre films that would define his mainstream success (Out of Sight, The Limey). But Traffic, his collaboration with screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (who drew on his own experiences with drug addiction to inform his adaptation of the 1989 British series Traffik), was an obvious broadening of scale. Three overlapping storylines. A deep ensemble populated by Hollywood A-listers (Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid, Viola Davis, Salma Hayek), character actors (Benicio del Toro, Albert Finney, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán), and up and comers (Erika Christensen, Topher Grace). A major narrative set in Mexico, told exclusively in Spanish. Most essential to the project, and what would shape so much of Soderbergh’s subsequent cinematic perspective, was a willingness to poke at the top-down hierarchies we are consistently told are necessary for society’s proper functioning. But if the decades-long War on Drugs, which was championed by wonks, bureaucrats, and politicians on both sides of the Republican/Democrat divide and transformed community policing into a more militarized, racialized version of localized warfare that disproportionately affected Black people and people of color, is so right, then why is it still such a failure on an international scale?
Traffic (which won four Oscars, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actor for del Toro) sets up an interconnected plot triptych, with characters whose actions and decisions reverberate through and ripple past their immediate spheres of influence. Judge Robert Wakefield (Douglas) is named America’s new drug czar, responsible for crafting America’s judicial response to the steady flow of narcotics into the country. The immense responsibilities of his work keep him away from his family, so he doesn’t realize how quickly his private-school daughter Caroline (Christensen) is slipping into addiction. The drugs Caroline takes are provided by one of the country’s wealthiest dealers, Carl Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose arrest shocks his unaware wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). To maintain her wealthy lifestyle, she decides to take over her husband’s business, drawing the attention of DEA Agents Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzmán). Helena’s new drug lord status connects her with the Obregón Cartel, who are being pursued by Mexican police officer Javier Rodriguez (del Toro) and his new boss, General Salazar (Tomas Milian). In his review for the New York Times, critic Stephen Holden called the world of Traffic a “despairing squall,” and that’s an apt description for a film that surges and storms, battering its characters against each other in intimate tête-à-têtes that speak to the stakes of the larger conflict.
Key to the engrossing nature of Traffic, and its most insightful element, is how amorphously its characters shift from hero to villain and back, and how that fluidity captures the compromised nobility of their motivations. Wakefield really believes he can make a difference, but he champions conversative policy that criminalizes people who need treatment. Helena is desperate to keep her family from slipping into the kind of poverty in which she grew up, but she doesn’t care who she hurts to protect her own. And as the lower men on the totem pole of power, Gordon and Castro in the U.S. and Rodriguez in Mexico consider bending the rules to get the results they think will help their communities.
It’s within the stories of those men, who as boots on the ground interact most directly with the people these policies are harming rather than helping, that Soderbergh buries his message that the only way to effect change is through individual action. Think of Officer Rodriguez’s statement about what motivates him, and of del Toro’s matter-of-fact delivery of it:
“You like baseball? We need lights for the parks, so kids can play at night. So they can play baseball. So they don’t become burros para los malones. Everybody likes baseball. Everybody likes parks.”
And think of how Traffic ends: with Soderbergh’s handheld camerawork and Brian Eno’s soaring “An Ending (Ascent)” capturing the quiet charm of a children’s baseball game in the field built by Rodriguez’s decision to testify about the corruption spreading into the highest levels of Mexican government. Maybe that choice puts Rodriguez’s life in danger, but maybe it will create a different path for the children throwing the ball around that night. Isn’t that worth defending?
That idea, along with Soderbergh’s problematic yellow filter of Mexico, has been copied over and over again in the years since. Most obviously similar is Denis Villeneuve and Taylor Sheridan’s 2015 film Sicario, which copies many of these same beats, adds a more sinister edge to its similar soccer-game ending, and even co-stars del Toro. But where Traffic excelled was in capturing the immense personal toll of faceless policy decisions, the relentless capitalist grind that maintains systems of inequality, and the uphill battle required to hold anyone accountable for all this tragedy. It is bleakly labyrinthine, and yet its moments of hope have a sense of moral clarity that Soderbergh has since refused to abandon. He hasn’t given up on us yet.