One of the predominant narratives used in describing Steven Soderbergh’s career is that he’s a director capable of helming both slick Hollywood product (Erin Brockovich, the Oceans films) and more idiosyncratic, decidedly uncommercial fare (Schizopolis, Full Frontal). Of course, this is terribly reductive and hardly accounts for the way both sensibilities tend to overlap throughout his filmography — perhaps most apparent in 2000’s Traffic, a nuanced and complex portrait of the war on drugs that’s paced like a breakneck thriller without resorting to simpleminded sentiment or moralizing.
In many ways a close cousin to Soderbergh’s most recent film, Contagion, Traffic is a constitutionally cold film. Even in its most harrowing, emotion-laden moments, there’s a clinical detachment that allows Soderbergh to present a wide-ranging, even-handed look at massive bureaucratic entities and the people that inhabit them. At the same time, Soderbergh is a masterful storyteller, cutting together seemingly disparate moments for maximum impact.
Working with three major plot threads, Soderbergh assigns a distinct color aesthetic to each — a hip stylistic affectation that works effectively as an orienting device in the crisscross narrative. In blown-out, harshly yellow hues, we witness the tribulations of Tijuana cop Javier Rodriguez (an Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro), striving to be honest in a country where we’re told being a cop is an entrepreneurial activity. A cold, blue tint casts a depressive pallor over the story of Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio Supreme Court Justice appointed to the position of federal drug czar who simultaneously witnesses the descent of his daughter (Erika Christensen) into addiction. And bright, hyper-naturalistic tones accompany Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán as a pair of undercover DEA agents on the verge of a big bust, which turns a kingpin’s trophy wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) into a fiercely combative protector of her own privileged lifestyle.
These primary narrative threads are accompanied by a stable of supporting characters (played by, among many others, Dennis Quaid, Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Albert Finney, James Brolin, Clifton Collins Jr., Viola Davis, Salma Hayek and Benjamin Bratt) that help create what feels like a fully realized cinematic world. This kind of character and environmental detail generally takes at least a miniseries to achieve (Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay is based on the 1989 British miniseries Traffik), but Gaghan’s script construction and Soderbergh’s impeccably economic storytelling make it happen in less than two and a half very brisk hours.
The Blu-ray Disc
Opening the film up from its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio that was featured on the DVD, Criterion presents Traffic in a 1080p, 1.78:1 aspect ratio, described as Soderbergh’s preferred ratio. This director-approved transfer looks fantastic from the get-go, bringing out more distinctive details from each of the film’s visual approaches. The yellow-tinted Mexico scenes achieve an even more blown-out, high-contrast look, and heavy film grain often takes a center stage. The blue-tinted Wakefield scenes feature excellent sharpness and clarity, while the hyper-bright colors of the drug bust scenes are more obviously oversaturated than DVD editions make clear. Fine pattern and object detail is superb throughout.
Audio is presented with two options: a default 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track and a 2.0 surround DTS-HD track. Naturally, the 5.1 mix is heftier, although both handle the film’s barrage of dialogue and occasional loud effects clearly and cleanly. Per the director’s request, English subtitles during the Spanish-speaking scenes are non-removable.
Pretty much a direct port of Criterion’s two-disc DVD, the Blu-ray edition brings over the excellent supplements from that edition. My favorite inclusions are the three technical demonstrations, which walk you through the film processing used on the Mexico scenes, the editing of four scenes and the dialogue/sound editing of a different four scenes. The two editing demos are a fascinating, if brief look at the technical minutiae essential to filmmaking.
Also included are 25 minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Soderbergh and Gaghan, four segments of raw additional footage presented with multiple-angle viewing, trailers and TV spots, and a small gallery of trading cards featuring canine members of the U.S. Customs drug detection team. The disc comes complete with three audio commentaries as well — Soderbergh and Gaghan; a team of three producers and two technical consultants; and composer Cliff Martinez, whose commentary accompanies a music-only track and includes an alternate ending music cue.
The package comes with a thin insert that includes an essay by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis.
The Bottom Line
Criterion presents a worthy upgrade of Soderbergh’s impressively constructed film about the futility of the war on drugs.