Traffic wins acclaim

clip from Trafficclip from TrafficA US blockbuster showing the hopelessness of the war on drugs has received critical acclaim and been nominated for five Academy Awards. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic weaves together three storylines to create a portrait of the corruption and futility of the American war on drugs.
The plots include a Supreme Court judge appointed as the new drug czar while his daughter is spiralling into addiction, corrupt Mexican police dealing with an even more corrupt drug war, and US cops trying to convict a wealthy drug dealer while his pregnant wife bravely carries on his business.

Traffic vs Traffik

Traffic is based on a 1989 British Channel Four miniseries called Traffik, also shown on Masterpiece Theater in 1990. Written by Stephen Gaghan, Traffic Americanizes the original script by Simon Moore, moving the story from Britain and Pakistan to the US and Mexico. There are other significant changes between the two versions, including a difference in perspective, moral tone and the drug of focus. Traffic is about cocaine, while Traffik dealt with heroin.

Traffik’s five-and-a-half-hour running time allowed for subtler characterizations, more complex plotting and an ambiguous morality. The miniseries also included a sympathetic opium poppy grower as a main character, while Traffic never shows the face of the farmers who grow coca.

clip from Trafficclip from TrafficTraffic’s Californian drug magnate, whose pregnant wife has to take over his drug business while he stands trial, was originally a German dealer with an English wife.?The “drug czar” role played by Michael Douglas is based upon a British Member of Parliament who heads the Drug Abuse Committee, played by Jack Lithgow.

Where Traffic’s villain is a corrupt Mexican general, Traffik has an Islamic Karachi billionaire named Tariq Butt. The morally ambiguous man who comes into the drug lord’s service and wins his trust isn’t a corrupted policeman (Benicio Del Toro’s role) but rather a poppy farmer named Fazal, excellently played by Jamal Shah. Fazal moves to Karachi when his crop is torched by Pakistani soldiers, and Lithgow ignores his petition for a more tolerant policy on the treatment of local farmers.

Working for Butt, Fazal sees that Pakistan’s anti-opium efforts are a charade to please the British government. Butt gets his opium from across the border in Afghanistan. Goods are shipped to Hamburg via Pakistani “mules” who ingest bags of heroin ? one mule is Fazal’s wife.

clip from Trafficclip from TrafficMoral views

Unlike Traffik’s ambiguity, Soderbergh’s Traffic has a simpler moral view. There is no question in the film that drugs are very bad and that we’re losing the war against them. Traffic has a preachy and melodramatic style, with many conversations between characters being more obviously directed at the audience. Traffic also has some implausabilities and weaknesses in the plot, with some elements from the mini-series being condensed or excised to the point of absurdity.

Yet despite its weaknesses, Traffic weaves an emotionally compelling. intellectually stimulating and visually attractive tale, sustaining interest over its two-and-a-half hours.

There is nothing positive in the movie about marijuana culture. Cannabis is shown only once, in a scene where the drug czar’s daughter is smoking pot and snorting cocaine with her friends. By the end of the film she has become a crack addict, stealing and prostituting herself to get her fix. Although the pot is not emphasized, her rapid descent from a top student to glazed crack-whore begins with marijuana, and the only portrayals of sex in the movie are associated with her use of crack cocaine.

Steven SoderberghSteven SoderberghSoderbergh’s epic does not provide any solutions to the problems it depicts. It is a stark condemnation of the unwinnable drug war, but the only hope presented in the film is “treatment.” The final scene shows the drug czar attending a rehabilitation program with his daughter, explaining “I’m just here to listen.”

In interviews, Soderbergh claimed that his film had no moral agenda. “We’re trying to be as dispassionate as we can,” he said, “just show you a snapshot and say, ‘This is what’s happening now.'”

Good timing

A large part of the film’s popularity has to do with its political timeliness. Traffic contains a scene with several US senators, such as Orrin Hatch, Barbara Boxer, Don Nickles and Chuck Grassley, playing themselves as they make drug war pitches to the incoming drug czar. This is a scene which could soon be playing itself out for real, as President Bush is due to announce his pick as the nation’s new drug czar, to replace the outgoing General Barry McCaffrey.

The anti-prohibitionist Lindesmith Center?Drug Policy Foundation has capitalized on the film’s theme and topic with a website called, where visitors can see images from Traffic and play a game designed to further reveal that new strategies are needed to deal with drug use and addiction.

The Lindesmith Center?Drug Policy Foundation also provided free passes to see Traffic to legislators in New Mexico and other US states.Steven Soderbergh

? Traffic: