It's interesting to look at the ebb and flow of Steven Soderbergh's career. He started out defining low budget filmmaking. His debut feature 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape' was the first "independent" success (it even scored an original screenplay nomination). After that, he sort of puttered around, doing interesting low budget movies like the coming-of-age drama 'King of the Hill' (which has been on pay cable a lot lately and is crying out for a Criterion release – it's never been on DVD even) and the deeply personal, deeply strange 'Schizopolis.' He seemed to get his mojo back with 1998's 'Out of Sight,' almost ten years after 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape's' initial breakthrough.
From then until his commercial peak in 2001 with 'Ocean's Eleven' he was more or less unstoppable. Only after he scored with 'Ocean's Eleven' did he slide back into the obscure waters that defined him initially. Movies like 'Solaris,' 'Bubble,' and 'Che' were artistic successes, but didn't make much of an impact with moviegoers. In fact, he's currently so far afield (his last movies were the prostitution drama 'The Girlfriend Experience' and the wacky whistleblower comedy 'The Informant!') that it's hard to think of Soderbergh as an Oscar-winning director. But he is.
And the movie that scored him that distinction was 2000's multilayered drug drama 'Traffic.' Based on a British miniseries of the same name (only spelled differently), it was nominated for five Academy Awards and won four of them – Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Bafflingly, it lost Best Picture to Ridley Scott's overblown drive-in movie 'Gladiator.'
Let's think about that Best Picture winner/loser scenario for just a minute. 'Traffic,' with its fractured storyline, heavily processed look, and socially conscious themes, seemed like a movie ahead of its time that would go on to influence a whole squad of similar movies (among them, future Best Picture winner 'Crash'). By comparison, 'Gladiator' seems like an antique. Besides some minor technological advancement and snappier editing and, what, exactly, differentiates it from old Hollywood bores like 'Ben Hur?' Not much.
'Traffic's' plot is wild and labyrinthine but never unwieldy. It's about the war on drugs (circa 2000) and features a number of storylines, which can be lumped together into three main threads (basically broken down into 'buying,' 'selling,' and 'policing'). The first follows Michael Douglas as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy aka the Drug Czar. There's a fair amount of political machinations in this section of the movie and many real politicians make appearances on screen (in a precursor to Soderbergh's short lived HBO series 'K Street'). While he is trying desperately to get a handle on the so-called war on drugs a war rages within his own home, when his teenage daughter Erika Christensen becomes an addict. In one of the film's most compelling sequences, Douglas drives the streets of D.C. looking for his runaway daughter.
The second storyline involves a Mexican police officer (Benicio del Toro, who won the Oscar for his perfectly modulated performance) attempting to crack down on drug related crime on both sides of the border. This section of the film is almost entirely in subtitles and carries with it a distinctive, bleached out look. (It helped to create a kind of visual shorthand for each setting/storyline.) The Mexico storyline is easily the most compelling, both because of del Toro's affecting performance and the cool-ass look of that section. Also, and I had completely forgotten about this until I rewatched it the other day, Salma Hayek has a role as a drug kingpin's wife.
The third thread is the most obviously thriller-y of all three. This section of the movie involves Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman living in America and whose husband (Steven Bauer) is arrested for being a drug kingpin himself. She turns to Dennis Quaid, who is her lawyer and also her husband's drug dealer. While it is ostensibly about Zeta-Jones' character, it hinges more on Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman as a couple of DEA agents on the case. Their friendship/partnership in a weird way emotionally anchors this section of the movie and makes for all of the more obvious stuff (hitmen, double crosses, assassination attempts etc.) more forgivable.
The different storylines dovetail and converge in some really nice and interesting ways and as it stands, 'Traffic' remains a better movie than most of what would follow it ('21 Grams,' 'Crash,' etc.) It was a movie ahead of its time and also very much of its time. As one of Soderbergh's crowning achievements, it demands to be rewatched and studied a number of times over. For a movie as big and sprawling as this one, what really strikes me is how resonant some of the emotional beats of the movie are. They stay with you even longer than Soderbergh's technical derring do and his deftness at this type of narrative. It's a modern day classic. It's just not, you know, Best Picture material.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion gave 'Traffic' a DVD release in 2002, so this is the second time they've transferred the film. The new transfer has been placed on a Region A BD-50 in a standard clear Criterion Collection keepcase. Similar to the 2002 Criterion DVD release of 'Traffic,' the booklet included in the keepcase contains an essay titled 'Border Wars' by New York Times Critic Manohla Dargis, the cast and crew credits, chapter titles and a section about the new transfer that's filled with technical jargon. As stated, "at the request of the director, the English subtitles for the Spanish sequences are presented as they were on the U.S. film prints, rather than as optional subtitles." Not a single feature plays on the disc before taking us to the menu.
Unlike Universal's 2010 VC-1 Blu-ray release of 'Traffic' in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Criterion has given the new 1080p transfer an 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode presented in "the director's preferred" 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
It's difficult to review something like 'Traffic' when the video quality is intentionally blown out and tweaked as a directorial decision. Does it look great compared to other fantastic Blu-ray releases? Not at all. But does it look exactly as the director intended it to be? Almost.
Each of the three major storylines in 'Traffic' has its own look. Mexico is blown out, Ohio and DC feature a blue tint and Southern California is bright and the most "normal" looking. A few different types of film stock and levels of exposure were used to give each their distinctive looks. The only thing that all three have in common is the extremely high amount of grain, another directorial decision that gives the film its gritty tone. (Check out the special features to find out exactly why and how the film was made to look this way.)
Given that all of the abnormalities and flaws are as they were intended to be, the overall picture quality almost completely nails the way 'Traffic' looked during its theatrical presentation, with the exception of digital noise. It's not a constant nuisance, occasionally popping up during dark sequences here and there, but know that digital noise shows up throughout the film. Some traces of DNR can be seen from time to time. When it's there, it's definitely a highly noticeable distraction. Aliasing also rears its head from time to time, but artifacts and edge enhancement are never a factor.
Just like Soderbergh, sound editor Larry Blake returned to supervise the audio transferring process, giving 'Traffic' lossless 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Because the film is composed of both English and Spanish dialog, there aren't multiple audio tracks to choose from.
One thing I noticed was that most of the sound tends to come from the front, giving the film a very flat and forward feel. It wasn't until music was introduced around the eight-minute mark that I noticed the surround channels being used. While reviewing the special features, it became obvious to me why this was the case – per Soderbergh, the dialogue and most of the effects in 'Traffic' are presented in mono. The rare/occasional use of music – aside from a few effects – is the only thing to fill the other channels. Music only slightly engages the rear speakers.
Just like the video quality, this is exactly how the director intended it, so I cannot fault it for lacking. However, there are a few instances where the audio becomes slightly problematic. Like the picture quality, the audio is meant to sound raw and real – but certain scenes with yelling cause the audio to become distorted and blown out.
I have a hard time understanding why a director would want his audio to lack dynamics, but that's his call.
Although all of the special features are presented in 1080i, they appear to be nothing but standard definition video.
Some may call it pretentious and overly artsy, but I think 'Traffic' is a bold, thought-provoking look at the drug war from both sides of the border. It offers insight as to why we (the non drug dealers) will never win. Sadly, on our side it requires the full sacrifice of time and money from thousands of people. On the other side, thousands of people are paid heavy sums to push it through, so there's an instant, constant and, in all honesty, more appealing draw to working for the "bad guys." Until we match that force, we don't stand a chance. Soderbergh drove this point home in 'Traffic' by making the picture quality just as gritty as the content itself. The Blu-ray looks almost identical to its theatrical presentation, but is far from being a demo-worthy title. Soderbergh made an odd directorial decision to mix 98 percent of the dialog and effects in mono, the music being the only full-time player in the surround and rear channels. While I don't understand his decision in doing so, it sounds exactly the way he wanted it to. If you're a fan of Soderbergh and/or the film, this is the release that you want. It's filled to the brim with interesting sociopolitical and tech-centric special features. Accept no substitute.