|Directed by||Steven Soderbergh|
|Produced by||Edward Zwick
|Written by||Stephen Gaghan|
Benicio del Toro
|Music by||Cliff Martinez|
|Editing by||Stephen Mirrione|
|Distributed by||USA Films|
|Release date(s)||United States
December 27, 2000
January 5, 2001
January 26, 2001
March 8, 2001
March 15, 2001
|Running time||147 min.|
|Language||English / Spanish|
Traffic is a 2000 crime drama film directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Stephen Gaghan. It explores the intricacies of the illegal drug trade from a number of perspectives: a user, an enforcer, a politician and a trafficker, whose lives affect each other even though they do not meet. The film is an adaptation of the British Channel 4 television series Traffik.
Originally planned to be made with 20th Century Fox, the film was shelved unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star and significant changes to the screenplay were made. Soderbergh was subsequently turned down by all other major Hollywood studios because of three-hour running time and the subject matter. USA Films agreed to finance and offered the filmmakers more money than Fox. The director operated the camera himself and adopted a distinctive look for each story so that audiences could tell them apart and to avoid any confusion.
Traffic was a commercial success with a worldwide total of $207.5 million, well above its estimated $48 million budget. It was also well-received critically and earned numerous awards, including four Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2004, USA Network ran a miniseries—also called Traffic—based on the movie and the earlier television series.
The film begins in Mexico, where police officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner, Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), stop a drug transport and arrest the couriers. Their arrest is interrupted by General Salazar (Tomás Milián), a high-ranking Mexican official, who decides to hire Rodriguez. Salazar instructs him to locate and apprehend Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a notorious hit man for the Tijuana Cartel, headed by the Obregón brothers.
Meanwhile, Robert Wakefield (Douglas), a conservative Ohio judge, is appointed to head the President's Office of National Drug Control, taking on the title drug czar. Wakefield is warned by his predecessor and several influential politicians that the War on Drugs is unwinnable. Unbeknownst to Wakefield, his honors student daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen) has been using cocaine, and develops a drug addiction after her boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) introduces her to smoking heroin. Caroline and Seth are arrested when a fellow student overdoses on drugs at a party and they unsuccessfully try to dump him anonymously at a nearby hospital. Robert finds out that his wife Barbara (Amy Irving) has known about their daughter's involvement with drugs for over six months.
A third story is set in San Diego, where an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation led by Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzmán) leads to arrest of Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer), a high-stakes dealer posing as a fisherman. Ruiz, who is hospitalized as the result of a gunshot wound from the arrest, decides to risk the dangerous road to immunity by giving up his boss: drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), the biggest distributor for the Obregón brothers in the United States. Ayala is indicted by a tough prosecutor, hand-selected by Wakefield in an attempt to send a message to the Mexican drug organizations.
Flores is tortured and eventually gives Salazar the names of several important members of the Obregón cartel, who are arrested in a large effort by police and army soldiers. Rodriguez and Salazar's efforts begin to cripple the Obregón brothers' cocaine outfit, but Rodriguez soon discovers Salazar is a pawn for the Juárez Cartel, the rival of the Obregón brothers. The entire Mexican anti-drug campaign is a fraud, as Salazar is wiping out one cartel not per his duty, but because he has aligned himself with another cartel for profit.
Wakefield realizes his daughter is a drug addict and finds himself caught between his demanding new position and his worrisome family life. When he heads to Mexico, he is encouraged by the successful efforts of Salazar in hurting the Obregón brothers. When he returns to Ohio, Robert learns his efforts to see Caroline rehabilitated have failed and she escaped into the city of Cincinnati, where no one knows her location. Secretly, she's forced to prostitute herself to a drug dealer, and rob her parents to procure money for drugs.
As the trial against Carlos Ayala begins, his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) learns of her husband's true profession. Facing the prospect of life imprisonment for her husband and death threats against her only child, Helena decides to hire Flores to assassinate Eduardo Ruiz; she knows killing Ruiz will effectively end the trial nolle prosequi.
Rodriguez's partner, Sanchez, attempts to sell the information of Salazar's true affiliation to the DEA, but is killed for his betrayal. Rodriguez, who can no longer stomach working for Salazar, decides to cut a deal with the only non-corrupt organization he has access to: the federal government of the United States and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In exchange for his testimony, Javier requests electricity in his neighborhood, so the kids can play baseball at night rather than be tempted by street gangs and crime. Salazar's secrets are revealed to the public, and he is arrested and tortured to death shortly thereafter.
Wakefield drags Seth along as he begins to search Cincinnati for his daughter. After being threatened and nearly killed by a drug dealer, Wakefield breaks into a seedy hotel room and finds a semi-conscious Caroline prostituting herself to an older man. Wakefield returns to Washington, D.C., to give his prepared speech on a "10-point plan" to combat the war on drugs. In the middle of the speech, he falters, then tells the press that the War on Drugs is a war against many family members, which he cannot endorse. He then walks out of the press conference, quits his job and heads home.
Flores plants a car bomb on a DEA car in an attempt to assassinate Ruiz. Shortly after planting the bomb, however, Flores himself is assassinated by a sniper in retaliation for his betrayal in cooperating with General Salazar; the car bomb kills Castro, but both Gordon and Ruiz survive. Helena, knowing Ruiz is soon scheduled to testify, makes a deal with Juan Obregón (Benjamin Bratt), lord of the drug cartel, who forgives the debt of the Ayala family and murders Ruiz. Carlos Ayala is released, much to the dissatisfaction of Gordon, who is still angry over the death of his partner. Soon after the release, Gordon bursts into the Ayala residence and surreptitiously plants a microphone under one of the tables, before being kicked out.
Robert and Barbara Wakefield begin to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings with their daughter to support her and everyone else there. Rodriguez explains about the widespread corruption in the police force and army to members of the media. The film concludes with Rodriguez watching Mexican children playing baseball at night in their new stadium.
Some aspects of the plotline are based on real-life characters and events. The character General Arturo Salazar is closely modeled after Mexican General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who was secretly on the payroll of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez Cartel. The character Porfilio Madrigal is modeled after Fuentes. The Obregón brothers are similarly modeled after the Arellano Félix brothers.
Contract killer Francisco Flores is based on Alfredo Hodoyán Palacios, known as "the Wolf", a contract killer who was detained by Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo. He is now serving a fifty year sentence in a Mexican prison.
Steven Soderbergh had been interested in making a film about the drug wars for some time but did not want to make one about addicts. Producer Laura Bickford obtained the rights to the United Kingdom mini-series Traffik and liked its structure. Soderbergh, who had seen the mini-series in 1990, started looking for Bickford for a screenwriter to adapt it into a film. They read a script by Stephen Gaghan called Havoc about upper-class white kids in Palisades High School doing drugs and getting involved with gangs. Soderbergh approached Gaghan to work on his film, but found he was already working for producer/director Ed Zwick. Bickford and Soderbergh approached Zwick, who agreed to merge the two projects and come aboard as a producer.
Traffic was originally going to be made at 20th Century Fox but it was put into turnaround unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star. Soderbergh began shopping the movie to other studios, but when Ford suddenly showed interest in Traffic, Fox's interest in the film was renewed and the studio took it out of turnaround. Fox CEO Bill Mechanic championed the film, but he departed from the studio by the time the first draft was finished, which caused it to go back into turnaround. Mechanic had also wanted to make some changes to the script, but Soderbergh disagreed and decided to once again shop the film to other major studios. They all turned him down because they were not confident in the prospects of a three-hour film about drugs, according to Gaghan. USA Films, however, had wanted to take on the movie from the first time Soderbergh approached them. They provided the filmmakers with $46 million budget, a considerable increase from the $25 million that Fox offered.
Soderbergh had "conceptual discussions" with Gaghan while he was shooting The Limey in October 1998 and they finished the outline before he went off to shoot Erin Brockovich. After Soderbergh was finished with that film, Gaghan had written a first draft in six weeks that was 165 pages long. After the film was greenlit, Soderbergh and Gaghan met two separate times for three days and worked all day reformatting the script. The draft they shot with had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities. The film shortens the storyline of the original mini-series; a major character arc, that of a farmer, is taken out, and the Pakistani plotline is replaced with one set in Mexico.
Harrison Ford was initially considered for the role of Robert Wakefield in January 2000, but would have had to take a significant cut in his usual $20 million salary. Ford met with Soderbergh to flesh out the character and Gaghan agreed to rework the role, adding several scenes that ended up in the finished film. On February 20, Ford turned down the role and the filmmakers brought it back to Michael Douglas, who had turned down an earlier draft. He liked the changes implemented for Ford and agreed to star, which helped greenlight the project. Gaghan believes Ford turned down the role because he wanted to "reconnect with his action fans."
The filmmakers sent out letters to many politicians, both Democrat and Republican, asking them to make an appearance as themselves in the film. The ones who agreed, including U.S. Senator Harry Reid, playing himself, as do Senators Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley, Don Nickles, and Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, were filmed in a scene that was entirely improvised.
After Fox dropped the film in early 2000 and before USA Films expressed interested soon after, Soderbergh paid for pre-production with his own money. USA Films agreed to give him final cut on Traffic and also agreed to his term that all the Mexican characters would speak Spanish while talking to each other. This meant that almost all of Benicio del Toro's dialogue would be subtitled. Once the studio realized this, they suggested that his scenes be shot in both English and Spanish, but the suggestion was rejected. Del Toro was worried that some other actor would be brought in and re-record his dialogue in English after working hard to master Mexican inflections and improve his Spanish vocabulary. Del Toro remembers, "Can you imagine? You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said, 'No way. Over my dead body.' Steven was like, 'Don't worry. It's not gonna happen.'" The director fought for subtitles for the Mexico scenes, arguing if the characters did not speak Spanish, the film would have no integrity and would not convincingly portray what he described as the "impenetrability of another culture".
The filmmakers went to the DEA and U.S. Customs early on with the script and told them that they were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. The DEA and Customs pointed out inaccuracies in the script and gave them access the border checkpoint to Mexico, as shown in the film during the scene in which Wakefield and his people talk with border officials. Despite the assistance, the DEA did not try to influence the content of the script. Soderbergh said Traffic had influences from the films of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard, and said he spent a lot of time analyzing The Battle of Algiers and Z, which, according to the director, had the feeling that the footage was caught and not staged. He was also inspired by Alan J. Pakula's film All the President's Men because he admired its ability to tackle serious issues while also being entertaining. In the opening credits of his film, Soderbergh tried to replicate the typeface from All the President's Men and also the placement on-screen on the bottom left-hand corner. Analyzing this film helped the director deal with the large cast and working in many different locations for Traffic.
Half of the first day's footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio bosses knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. The insurers made him agree that any further lensing mishaps resulting in additional shooting would come out of the director's own pocket. Soderbergh shot in cities on a 54-day schedule and came in $2 million under budget. The director operated the camera himself in an effort to "get as close to the movie as I can," and to eliminate the distance between the actors and himself. Soderbergh drew inspiration from the cinema verite style of Ken Loach's films, studying the framing of scenes, the distance of the camera to the actors, lens length, and the tightness of eyelines depending on the position of a character. Soderbergh remembers, "I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic". Most of the day was spent shooting because a lot of the film was shot with available light.
For the hand-held camera footage, Soderbergh used Millennium XLs that were smaller and lighter than previous cameras and allowed him to go anywhere with it. In order to tell the three stories apart, he adopted a distinctive look for each. For Robert Wakefield's story, Soderbergh used tungsten film with no filter for a cold, monochrome blue feel. For Helena Ayala's story, Soderbergh used diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposing it for a warmer feel. For Javier Rodriguez's story, the director used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to produce a strobe-like sharp feel. Then, he took the entire film through an Ektachrome step, which increased the contrast and grain significantly. He wanted to have different looks for each story because the audience had to keep track of many characters and absorb a lot of information and he did not want them to have to figure out which story they were watching.
Benicio del Toro had significant input into certain parts of the film; for example, he suggested a simpler, more concise way of depicting his character kidnapping Francisco Flores than Soderbergh ended up using. The director cut a scene in which Robert Wakefield smokes crack after finding it in his daughter's bedroom. After rehearsing said scene with the actors, he felt that the character would not do it; after consulting with Gaghan, the screenwriter agreed and the filmmakers cut the scene a brief time before it was scheduled to be shot.
The first cut of Traffic ran three hours and ten minutes. Soderbergh cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. Early on, there were concerns that the film might get an NC-17 rating and he was prepared to release it with that rating, but the Motion Pictures Association of America gave it an R.
Traffic was given a limited release on December 27, 2000 in four theaters where it grossed USD $184,725 on its opening weekend. It was given a wide release on January 5, 2001 in 1,510 theaters where it grossed $15.5 million on its opening weekend. The film would make $124.1 million in North America and $83.4 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $207.5 million, well above its estimated $48 million budget.
In addition to strong box office receipts, Traffic was very well-received critically. It has a 92% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an 86 aggregate score on Metacritic. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn't preach. It is so restrained that at one moment—the judge's final speech—I wanted one more sentence, making a point, but the movie lets us supply that thought for ourselves". Stephen Holden, in his review for the New York Times, wrote, "Traffic is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff". In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he's going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled".
Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and praised Benicio Del Toro's performance, and critic Owen Gleiberman called it, "haunting in his understatement, becomes the film's quietly awakening moral center". Desson Howe, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade". In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, "The hand-held camerawork – Soderbergh himself did the holding - provides a documentary feel that rivets attention". However, Richard Schickel, in his review for Time, wrote, "there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another".
Traffic appeared on several critics' top ten lists. Some of the notable top-ten list appearances are:
The film won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, alongside another Soderbergh film, Erin Brockovich, but lost to Gladiator. Traffic was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture - Drama, Soderbergh for Best Director, Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Supporting Actress and Stephen Gaghan for Best Screenplay. Both Del Toro and Gaghan won in their respective categories. In addition, Del Toro won Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. He went on to win Best Supporting Actor at the 54th British Academy Film Awards along with Gaghan, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The New York Film Critics Circle named Traffic as the Best Film of the Year, Soderbergh as Best Director and Del Toro as Best Supporting Actor. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Soderbergh Best Director of the year. Members of the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Soderbergh as Best Director of the year and Del Toro as Best Actor. The National Society of Film Critics also voted Soderbergh and Del Toro as Best Director and Best Supporting Actor respectively.