Starting a few years back with Out of Sight and continuing on with The Limey and Erin Brokovich, director Steven Soderbergh had been riding a remarkable streak of winning films that fulfills the blazing promise of his first film, sex, lies, and videotape. With his most complex film to date, Traffic, Soderbergh once again proved that he is one of America’s most inventive filmmakers. He doesn’t play it safe – with each and every new outing, Soderbergh proves that he’s not afraid to …ake chances. It seems as if he thrives off of the challenge and manages (so far) to hit a home run every time he steps up to the plate.
Based on the British mini-series “Traffik”, Soderbergh’s film tackles America’s complex “war on drugs”, ultimately declaring it a draw, if not a futile endeavor. It interweaves three separate storylines, each with its own trailing threads and allows Soderbergh, and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement), to detail various aspects of the drug trade in America, Mexico, and in homes all across America. The film is many stories and no center – a drama that describes a condition in which symptoms far outnumber any possible cure. We see smart, affluent teens smoking, snorting, and shooting-up under the noses of parents you would think are most likely to realize it. We see the high living that drug money can afford you and we wander the streets of dusty Tijuana to see the beginnings of the drugs making their way across our borders. The film retains a personal touch for viewers by making the cops, crooks, and users into individuals with strong personalities and credible motives for their actions.
Traffic’s screenwriter, Steven Gaghan, is a former journalist whose research took him to police chiefs, the DEA, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. All throughout the film, we are given clean and authentic dialogue – no matter whether we are listening to dealers, kingpins, cops, judges, or upper class kids who enjoy freebasing after school and braying and pontificating on the phoniness of social intercourse. It all rings eerily true.
The film follows a documentary–like style, with three stories shot in their own color scheme in order to let you follow them distinctly. In a grainy, bleached out, medley of yellowish-brown tint, we follow Mexican police officer Javier Rodriquez (superbly played by Benicio Del Toro) as he tries his best to prevent drugs from moving across the Mexican border into America. Rodriquez is recognized as being very effective at what he does and is recruited by a local, very corrupt General Salazar (Tomas Milian) to work directly for him. Moral ambiguities arise, as Rodriquez and his partner, played by Jacob Vargas, must divide loyalties and try to function in an atmosphere so rife with corruption that it’s hard to see who’s playing whom.
Meanwhile, in gloomy, blue hues, a tough-on-crime Ohio Supreme Court Justice, Robert Wakefield, is named as the nation’s new drug czar, only to find out that his 16-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), a National Merit finalist, and her affluent friends in the Cincinnati suburb, are hooked on what he is supposed to abolish. As the story plays out, it will absolutely rip your heart out of your chest as Douglas and Christensen give gut-wrenching performances.
In San Diego, with balanced and well-saturated colors, a pair of hard-working DEA agents, played by Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman, have captured a mid-level drug dealer (Miguel Ferrer) who has negotiated immunity by testifying against those higher up the drug food chain. The testimony will be especially damaging to Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), whose arrest comes as a shock to his pregnant, trophy wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Helena, in order to make ends meet and keep up her high standard of living, must immerse herself in the family “business” of drugs and wage a war of vengeance on those who have crossed her husband. She winds up giving chilling, lethal orders as she tries to salvage her husband’s crumbling empire.
Soderbergh follows these three separate stories, occurring simultaneously, and eventually merges them into a single, gripping focus.
This is a huge cast by any standard, and there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. Buoyed by Del Toro, he plays his role with a sense of tragic inevitability as a man stripped of illusions and numb to corruption. Zeta-Jones gives the performance of her career as she turns an otherwise ordinary role into one that demands you take notice – she becomes every bit as menacing as the most corrupt, evil person in the film and delivers her ideas and orders with a cold, calculated precision. Most memorable however is Christensen as Douglas’ coked-out daughter, Caroline Wakefield. After she’s hit bottom and is turning tricks in a fleabag hotel with a drug dealer, Christensen looks like a fallen angel. When she blisses out on drugs and gets that woozy, ethereal look in her eyes, she’s every parent’s nightmare come vividly to life.
Others turning in command performances are Douglas, Guzman, Cheadle, Amy Irving as Wakefield’s wife, Dennis Quaid as the Ayala’s family lawyer, and Topher Grace of “That ‘70s Show” as the preppie druggie who turns Caroline Wakefield on to her addiction.
The film paints a gloomy picture across a vast panoramic canvas, with three distinct, but parallel plots. With its self-conscious visual style, shot by Soderbergh himself with a camera over his shoulder (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Traffic is a cautionary tale that the drug wars are not only far from over, but are also woefully misdirected and far from being won. Soderbergh makes the point, without preaching, that drugs are in fact a symptom of larger problems, the result of a society that separates and isolates people.
Hollywood has so conditioned us to stories with upbeat, tidy endings, that a movie like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is a startling anomaly. (Heck – even Soderbergh is guilty of a “feel good” film – Oceans Eleven anyone?) Its subject is the overwhelming futility of the so-called war on drugs, a no-win battle in which there are no heroes and precious few good guys. Rather than offering easy answers, it suggests that we are in so far over our heads trying to stem the flow of illegal drugs that we aren’t even asking the right questions or looking in the right direction.
Traffic made more top ten lists than I care to remember in 2000 and it’s definitely in my top ten list of all time. The film is an absolute epic in my opinion and represents all the things that I love about Steven Soderbergh’s vivid and totally unique style. The DVD presentation from Criterion is epic as well. The expectations are high going in to any Criterion title and they deliver what we have come to expect from the studio – the absolute best, mot definitive set that exists for this film anywhere. A powerful and moving film that will leave you with more questions than answers and will definitely make you think and re-think your position on the drug issue – no matter where you stand. While not as in-your-face as say, Requiem for a Dream, Traffic still manages to get under your skin and leave you breathless when it’s over.
Criterion gives Soderbergh’s Traffic Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment in English, as well as a Dolby 2.0 mix in the same language. Subtitles for the film are English only. Again, much like the video transfer for the film, I don’t know if Criterion has re-mastered the audio or not, but it dies ring a bit brighter and cheerier than USA Home Entertainment’s more-than-adequate release.
The mix for the film still remains rather front channel heavy, as the film is a chatty affair more often than not. However, the film seems to contain a bit more ambience – a bit more separation within all of the distinct channels – but not enough to really score the film any higher than previously noted. There is some really nice imaging and fidelity up front, with the occasional effect and pan that causes the rear speakers to do a bit more than simply prop up the score for the film. There aren’t many effects to be found in Traffic (occasional gunfire, choppers, vehicle movement), but the ones that were noted were crisp, well defined, and properly placed within the soundstage. The film doesn’t call for a salvo of effects and action sequences and therefore, Criterion takes the opportunity to make the film more engaging with subtle, ambient sequences and scenes. Dialogue in the film is always intelligible and easily understood, without any harshness or edginess detected at any time.
Cliff Martinez’ score receives ample treatment from Criterion, as it sounds very warm and full throughout. While the score is a bit more low-key than most, it does a marvelous job of exhibiting the proper emotion and sense of urgency. LFE usage is pretty tame all things considered, but there are a couple of sustained instances (especially during the car bomb scene) where it requires that you stand up and take notice. Most of the time however, it’s hanging out in the background reinforcing dialogue, effects, and score. After viewing the two versions one right after the other, it seems that Criterion has added a bit more emphasis in the rear channels than what was available on the previous version produced by USA Home Entertainment. Not necessarily more active in the action sense, but definitely in the ambient one.
There was an interesting tidbit mentioned during the composer commentary when Martinez mentioned that the film was actually shot in mono – with the exception of the music. How this affects the Dolby Digital authoring I have no idea, as there are definite pans and ambient moments found in the track. It’s undeniable. Martinez says that he and Soderbergh never discussed this and he only brought it up in order to give us a bit more insight into how the score plays in to the overall theme for the film. An interesting side note for sure – digest it however you see fit.
Traffic is not one of those films that screams out for balls-out aggressiveness and Criterion does a great job of providing a finely balanced mix. Everything is crisp, clear, and totally appropriate and Traffic definitely sounds a wee bit better than it did before.
Criterion has put out an anamorphically enhanced transfer for this film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The original transfer, from the now defunct USA Home Entertainment was quite nice, especially coming from a relatively smaller company such as USA. The original rating the transfer received was a ‘4.0’ and looking back, it probably wouldn’t rate quite as high against some more recent films. However, Criterion seems to have improved somewhat on the original transfer for the film and provides the viewer with an image that is as close to picture perfect as you can get without being just so. (I don’t know if Criterion did anything to the original transfer, but overall, it just seems a bit more crisp that USA’s efforts. Less grainy – more detailed.)
Anyone familiar with Soderbergh’s work knows that in many of his films, he likes to employ all sorts of measures (namely, filters) to add a bit of artistic flair not seen in many releases these days. With all of Soderbergh’s stylistic choices in the film, it probably takes a bit more attention to detail in order to get the film looking just so for the DVD presentation and Criterion has done a most excellent job with their latest DVD release – and the second release for the film at hand. Any grain or print imperfections seem to be a natural extension of Soderbergh’s intentions and there are absolutely zero remnants of major flaws such as compression artifacts or break-up. Traffic is one of those films that is really hard to judge in terms of “reference quality” because of all the different filters, hues, and color schemes that Soderbergh employs – Mexico scenes are a bit grainy with yellowish/brown tint; Cincinnati and D.C. scenes are blue; San Diego is “normal”. Overall however, the picture looks astounding and the schemes are very effective and true to Soderbergh form.
Criterion’s picture was consistently sharp and detailed and was able to display Soderbergh’s distinct looks, exposures, filters marvelously. The color palette exhibited in the film was very strong and Criterion was able to portray that when called upon, as well as being able to jump to a washed out and gritty palette when needed. Everything was properly saturated within its corresponding hue and there was never any oversaturation or bleeding noted at any time. Fleshtones were totally natural and distinct, usually taking on some of the coloration of the filter being used at the time, while black levels were completely deep and dense and allowed for some great shadow detail and delineation. The film gives a very three-dimensional appearance and quite simply looks better than it ever has.
Print flaws in Criterion’s version are few and far between. It’s hard to speak about grain and flakes because of Soderbergh’s vision for the film. Everything I saw gave the impression of being intentional and therefore, I didn’t deduct any points because of it. Viewing the two versions of this disc side-by-side, it seems that there are fewer “flaws” and less grain on the Criterion version versus its USA counterpart.
With Criterion putting their “stamp of approval” on this definitive edition of Traffic, we knew the transfer would have to be able to stand up against some of the best out there – it does. Traffic looks better than ever and Criterion delivers big on the video front. Great job!
The version we’ve all been waiting for – The Criterion Collection’s take on Traffic. The long-rumored, now reality double-dip on one of my favorite films of all time. USA Home Entertainment, now no more because of its parent company’s woes, thankfully turned the reins over to Criterion to right the wrongs on the original version of the DVD. Released back in 2001, USA’s Traffic DVD contained nothing more than a quickie featurette, a trailer, some TV spots, and a crummy photo gallery. Now we have the version that should have been released and thank goodness Criterion is in the driver’s seat. Going through the extras on this disc is quite an experience and Criterion has achieved the “film school on a disc” vibe much better than most. It’s definitely one of the more anticipated releases of the first half of 2002 and it lives up to the hype. Spread out over two discs, there’s plenty to see and do.
– Disc One-
Well, for those of us who complained that there weren’t any commentaries (especially one by Soderbergh) on USA’s DVD, Criterion has made sure that our wait was well worth it. On this latest DVD release of Traffic, we are greeted by no less than 3 Commentaries – we have a Director/Writer Commentary, a Producer/Consultants Commentary, and even a Composer Commentary. Each commentary has an Index/Table of Contents that follow the film’s chapter stops and it definitely helps in skipping in and out of main points that you’re interested in.
Starting things off is the Director/Writer Commentary hosted by Stephen Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan. The duo was recorded together in the summer of 2001 (as were all the other commentaries) for this feature length commentary that covers every imaginable aspect of what it was like making this film. If you’ve waited and waited for the definitive Traffic commentary, then you’ve just hit the jackpot as the duo covers the mother lode of information about Traffic. Without rehashing over two hours of information, some of the topics covered are the genesis of the script and story, shooting on location, character motivations and praise for the actors who played them, what it’s like being your own cinematographer, shooting around Zeta-Jones’ pregnancy, access granted to the crew by US Customs and the DEA, research performed (and personal experiences recalled) to make the film as accurate as possible, and so on and so forth. There are some humorous moments in the commentary and the two seem to have maintained quite a nice relationship over time, but the majority of the track is all business and can get very technical and detailed in spots. There is some narration that goes on, but the majority of the track is full of splendid information from both parties. A really great listen that fans of the film and fans of Soderbergh will literally devour.
The next commentary that is offered on the disc is the Producers/Consultants Commentary and it is hosted by 5 different participants – producers Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz, and Edward Zwick, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and consultant Tim Golden, and former DEA Chief of Intelligence and consultant Craig Chretien. It’s not too difficult to keep up with all of the participants, as they were recorded separately (except for Herskovitz and Zwick) and edited together later. (They also introduce themselves before they speak which is nice.) Many topics are discussed here as each member sets up their individual involvement with the film and then proceeds to jump all over the map as far as the subjects that they cover. The genesis of the film and the script are covered again in much more detail, Golden and Chretien provides lots of real world stories and examples to set up the legitimacy of many of the scenes portrayed in the film, the involvement and performances of the principals is admired and discussed at length, shooting and budgeting constraints are mentioned, behind-the-scenes and on-the-set stories are imparted, we hear about screenings/previews and marketing strategies – you get the idea. The commentary is totally interesting and easily engaging, but there’s definitely some overlap between this commentary and the one that precedes it. However, since it’s not coming from the same angle, it keeps the material a bit fresh rather than simply sounding like a complete rehash of what was said earlier. There are very few lags in the chatter, but it’s definitely a bit more than what was on the previous track. Another tremendous commentary for fans of the film and Criterion is to be commended for making it happen.
The last commentary on the disc is the Composer Commentary and it is hosted by composer Cliff Martinez. Martinez, Soderbergh’s chosen composer (Traffic was his 8th film with Soderbergh), remains surprisingly active throughout his commentary and tells us more than we ever wanted to know about the score for Traffic. He goes it alone here and gives us his reasons for scoring the film the way he did, the instruments (and musicians) used, how he and Soderbergh have worked together over the years, and what compromises he has had to make in order to do that. When the score begins to play, the commentary, as well as the dialogue, goes completely silent and the score is the only audio on display. Impressively enough, Martinez does a pretty good job of keeping things interesting here. He’s very active and offers up one of the more active and engaging composer commentaries I’ve ever listened to. Nice job by Martinez and again, worth listening to if you’re a fan of the film. (However, if you’re dropping the cash on this disc, I would say that you’re a bit more than a casual fan.)
– Disc Two –
Starting off the second disc are 25 Deleted Scenes – “Manolo’s Anxiety Escapes”, “Javier Warns Manolo”, “Surveillance”, “Old Friends”, “Legalization”, “Auction”, “Arnie Comforts Helena”, “Madrigal’s Mistress & Manolo”, “Helena Wants To Help”, “Art Appraisal”, “Helena Gets Involved”, “Robert’s Lunch With Seth”, “Helena Asks To Meet Obregon”, “Factory”, “Obregon Tests Helena”, “Helena Searched At Border”, “Arnie Comes Through”, “Helena’s Meeting At Fun Zone”, “Robert Drives Caroline Home”, “Javier Makes Obregon An Offer”, “Robert Meets Javier”, “Madrigal’s Mistress And Javier”, “Monte Continues Surveillance”, “Gag” – and they can be viewed with or without commentary from director Stephen Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan. All of the scenes are marvelous to check out, but according to the commentary, most were cut for simple pacing reasons. I didn’t see any scene that would have hurt the film in any way (other than “Gag” – for obvious reasons) and the decisions that had to be made in order to cut these were surely difficult ones. The commentary included is very interesting and engaging and it definitely helped in setting the scenes up in their proper place within the film. By using the –PLAY ALL- feature, the scenes run slightly over 26-minutes total and are worth every minute of it.
Following are Demonstrations and here, we learn a bit more about the post-production processes that go on in order to put a film like Traffic on the big screen. There are three sub-selections offered that cover everything from “Film Processing” to “Editing” to “Dialogue Editing”. Starting things off is “Film Processing” (5:41) and here we get to see the multi-step process used to create the distinctive look of the Mexico sequences in the film. The steps are presented as 5 individual and selectable steps – or you may use the –PLAY ALL- feature.
The next feature, “Editing”, is narrated by Stephen Mirrione and he guides us through 4 different scenes from the film (Scene 69: Overdose – 5:40; Scene 139: Caroline is Caught – 4:55; Scene 144: Javier Meets the DEA – 1:45; Scene 252: Monte Visits the Ayala’s – 4:27). This extra is presented with commentary by Mirrione and with 2 angles that can be swapped back-and-forth by using the –ANGLE- button on your DVD remote. Mirrione explains, via the screen that he actually uses to edit (and his narration), what he was going for in each particular sequence. (Angle 1 shows us the actual screen from the software Mirrione must use to edit. Angle 2 is a widescreen version of the scene only. Very cool.) In the first scene, Mirrione sets up layers and some of the more technical aspects of what he’s doing, while in later scenes, he simply shows us the differences between an initial cut of the scene versus what actually ran in the film. Very, very interesting and well worth checking out.
The last feature under Demonstrations is “Dialogue Editing” and is hosted by supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Larry Blake. Here, we learn a great deal about what the dialogue editor does and what his job is all about. After a quick introduction via “Dialogue Editing 101” and “Dialogue for Traffic” (2 text-based extras), we get in to the meat of the feature via 4 scenes (Scene 19: The Radio in the Desert – 5:30; Scene 32: Two Guys Running – 2:02; Scene R62: ADR as a Cleanup Tool – 4:01; Scene C135: ADR as a Plot Point Tool – 1:44). Blake does a marvelous job explaining his job and breaking things down for the viewer so it’s real easy to follow. We even get to see him work at his ProTools workstation (the software that is evidently heavily used in the sound editing profession) editing the dialogue. He details what it was like working on the film and working with Soderbergh and it really opens your eyes as to what a Sound Editor really does. This extra was totally engaging and I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned watching it. (If you’re curious, ADR stands for Automated Dialogue Replacement. It is very simply post-production audio that had to be re-recorded after the film’s end.)
All of the features under the Demonstration portion of the disc are very in-depth and present tons of great information for those of us who are not only interested in the film itself, but the processes behind it. This is very simply the pared-down “film school on a disc” feature that many discs think they include, but really don’t. Criterion is a master at presenting these types of features and they don’t disappoint on Traffic.
Additional Footage is also included on Disc Two and here we have 4 selections to choose from – “EPIC (El Paso Intelligence Center)” (3:03), “Drug Warehouse” (7:08), “Cocktail Party” (24:38), and “Kids in Street” (2:45 – spread out over 3 takes). The scenes are presented in raw format with no touch-up or editing performed whatsoever. Once we make the selection of what scene we want to view, we have the option of choosing to learn “About The Scene” by means of a text-based selection or, if there were multiple angles used in creating the shot, we are told this ahead of time (as well as how many angles are available) and are given the choice of using our –ANGLE- button throughout the feature. The “Drug Warehouse” scene is the only one without multiple angles, but it is the only one that features a commentary. (The commentary is presented by Craig Chretien – Traffic consultant and former DEA Chief of Intelligence.) The scenes are all really great to check out and the multiple angle feature is a really nice addition as well. You definitely will not want to miss this extra.
Next up are Trailers and included we have the “US Teaser Trailer”, “US Trailer”, and then 5 “TV Spots” numbered … get this … 1 thru 5. Criterion has included a –PLAY ALL- feature here and all of the trailers are worth checking out. A nice addition, but not one that you’ll spend a lot of time with down the road. The trailers are in widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0.
Finishing off the disc is a selection entitled Trading Cards and after we select this feature, we are presented with two more sub-selections – “About The Canine Enforcement Program” and “K-9 Cards”. If we choose “About”, we get a quick one-page history about the Canine Enforcement Training Center (CETC) and how the US Customs Service uses narcotic-detecting dogs to aid in their enforcement. This is followed by “Cards” – trading cards produced by US Customs featuring the canine’s used in the program. The cards actually feature a picture of the dog, followed by vital stats and a big bust that they were involved in. (They even list “Rookie Cards”! LOL!) Definitely an interesting extra to say the least. Featured are well over 50 canines and the extra is legitimately interesting for quite some time before you get bored clicking through the cards.
While I didn’t receive one in my pre-release version, Criterion is known for their marvelous booklets/inserts and I’d be shocked if they didn’t have one available for Traffic. I don’t have one for review, but I feel confident in mentioning that there will probably be one with the version you’ll purchase on the 28th.
The one universal complaint with the previous edition of this disc dealt with the paltry extras. Well, Criterion has heard our complaints and made sure that this will no longer be an issue with fans of the film. This two-disc set from Criterion is and will continue to be the authoritative version of Traffic.
Most folks go to the movies to leave their troubles behind. That’s one among many worthy uses of the medium. However, Soderbergh’s Traffic takes a different route – in compelling terms, it puts bitter economic, social and racial truth right before our eyes. Think of the re-education scene in A Clockwork Orange – continue to blink or see – your choice.
As far as the DVD is concerned, Criterion proves once again why they’re the premiere DVD production house in business today and why they command top-dollar for titles that bear their name. The audio and video transfers for Traffic are beyond reproach and the extras package Criterion has provided is phenomenal. They’ve produced the authoritative Traffic DVD and we finally have a set worthy of the film itself.
If you held off buying the original waiting on this day; your time has come. I guarantee you that you couldn’t spend $25-35 dollars any better on May 28th than by purchasing this disc. If you bought USA’s original DVD and have been wondering all along if you should upgrade; well, I have one word for you – AB-SO-FREAKIN-LUTELY! No self-respecting Traffic fan will be able to walk past this disc and leave it sitting on the shelf on or after the 28th. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up at your earliest convenience – I promise that you won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended.
Special Features List
- Three Audio Commentaries
- Deleted Scenes
- Multiple Demonstrations
- Additional Footage
- Trading Cards