Film / Traffic

"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
Robert Wakefield

A 2000 crime Drama directed by Steven Soderbergh, Traffic was adapted from the 1989 British Channel 4 miniseries Traffik. With an All-Star Cast headed by Michael Douglas, his future wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Benicio Del Toro in his Oscar-winning performance, Traffic also won three other Oscars, including Best Director, only missing out on Best Picture to Gladiator.

In Mexico, officer Javier Rodriguez is assigned to investigate the drug trade by one General Salazar. Meanwhile, in Washington, federal judge Robert Wakefield is appointed the new drug czar just as he learns his daughter is an addict herself. In San Diego, two DEA agents finally arrest drug kingpin Carlos Ayala. Ayala's wife, Helena, upon learning of her husband's true profession, takes action to ensure his freedom and her own financial security. As more secrets and lies are revealed, these characters learn that the war on drugs isn't as straightforward as it seems.

The movie has many layers of Truth in Television, being a highly dramatized amalgamation of the lives of real people and very common or highly plausible events.

Not to be confused with the late-'60s/early-'70s British rock group of the same name. Or with Jacques Tati's 1971 film Trafic.

This film provides examples of:

  • Black and Grey Morality: One of the key themes of the film.
  • Bullet Proof Vest: Somewhat realistically done, as Don Cheadle's character gets shot at point blank and is momentarily winded. However, he's up and running again not too long after.
  • Bury Your Gays: The assassin approaching Del Toro's character in a gay bar leads to his Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique.
  • Call Back: The last scene is a call back to Javier's comment about wanting somewhere safe for kids to play baseball at night.
  • The Cameo: Salma Hayek has one brief scene as a drug lord's wife.
  • The Cartel: Two of them, in fact.
  • Color Wash: Different color palettes are used for different scenes. Those taking place in Mexico are shaded brown, while some scenes set in America have a blue tint.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Each of the four interleaving stories has its own location-based colour cast.
  • Culture Clash: The Mexican law enforcement are shown to have a decidedly more brutal approach to the war on drugs than the Americans. Wakefield is visibly shocked when after he asks how they approach drug treatment, Salazar dismissively replies: "Addicts treat themselves. They OD and there's one less to deal with."
  • The Dead Have Names: Montel tells Helena the name of his dead partner during their final confrontation.
  • Descent into Addiction: The primary plotline in the Wakefield story centres on Wakefield's daughter Caroline, who develops an addiction to heroin after being introduced to it by her boyfriend. Her parents put her in rehab, but she escapes and resorts to theft and prostitution to fund her habit. At the end of the film she's back in rehab and seems more committed to recovering.
  • Dig Your Own Grave: Both (comparatively) honest Mexican cops are made to do this.
  • Dirty Cop: More than one, including a general.
    • Truth in Television: Corrupt cops are nothing new, and the Mexican general is largely based on José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, a former division general in the Mexican army.
  • Downer Ending: Almost averted. The good guys (mostly) make it through well enough, but the bad guys get away, although one of the cops is making progress investigating Helena and appears confident he'll be busting her in due time. Certainly more cheerful than, say, The Wire.
  • Drugs Are Bad: The main character that is seen to be a drug user ends up appearing to have to whore herself out to get drugs.
  • External Combustion: Ray is killed by a car bomb.
  • Fridge Logic: An in-universe example. Wakefield is told that the amount of drugs stopped at the border has risen threefold. A viewer may think that's a good thing, until Wakefield asks if that means that the amount of drugs getting through has also risen threefold. The answer is yes.
  • Functional Addict: Seth, Caroline's boyfriend, appears to be this. Or maybe he's simply a recreational user who's avoided getting hooked. But he's definitely better off than his girlfriend.
    • Manolo, del Toro's character's partner, is subtly implied to be this.
    • Wakefield himself is accused of alcoholism by his wife.
  • Gayngster: The assassin, Frankie Flowers.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: At first the assassin is violently tortured, and then is "rescued" from his captors by the corrupt general; the torturer's boss. He is given a sumptuous meal and a bottle of wine, finally releasing the desired information after being told "In Vino Veritas".
  • Hyperlink Story: Three interlocking stories.
  • Inherent in the System: The war on drugs.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: The assassin is given one.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Carlos Ayala gets away with everything, the sole witness against him having been assassinated on the day he was to give testimony. But Montel hasn't given up trying to get him.
    • Seth suffers no consequences from getting his girlfriend hooked on crack.
  • Knight in Sour Armour: Montel to a tee.
    "The worst part about you, Monty, is that you realise the futility of what you're doing and you do it anyway."
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The screenplay boasted 143 speaking parts and arguably more than a dozen main characters.
  • Mama Bear: Helena. As ruthlessly as she goes about it, it's obvious that the main reason she's trying to get her husband out of jail is so that he can protect her and their son—the scene where he's threatened is the moment she realizes how dire the situation is.
  • The Man: Montel and Ray briefly discuss wanting to bring down The Man when working on busting Carlos:
    Ray: I have actually dreamt about this, about busting the top people, the rich people, WHITE people!
  • Moral Guardians: Wakefield's job is to be this, regarding drugs, for an entire country. Meanwhile, however, his own house is not quite in order.
  • Noodle Implements: A variation of the Ginger Beer Trick variety of this trope is used with a Coke bottle.
  • Not So Different: Wakefield's wife points out that, for all his anti-drug invective, he still drinks enough that he could not unjustifiably be called an alcoholic.
  • Perfect Poison: Averted, since the informant dies from eating poisoned breakfast that he complains "tastes like shit."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Catherine Zeta-Jones' Real Life pregnancy was written into the script. It's actually not a big deal or major plot point except for the scene where she refuses to snort cocaine.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The drug lord who is thought to have died in a surgery but turns out to be alive, is based on the drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies", who died in 1997 while undergoing a cosmetic surgery.
  • The Remake: Originally a British miniseries, revolving around heroin from Pakistan rather than cocaine from Mexico. The movie itself was eventually remade by the USA Network as a three part miniseries.
  • Those Two Guys: Montel and Ray. Leads to Mood Whiplash when Ray is blown up by Frankie Flowers' car bomb.
  • Throwing Out the Script: Wakefield interrupts himself in the middle of a carefully prepared, approved speech to make an emotional (though vague) reference to his drug-addicted daughter.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Formerly sheltered housewife Helena takes to drug running quite well.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Caroline goes to this two different times. The second time she is more sincere.
  • Values Dissonance: In-universe, a major theme of the film is the culture clash between the US and Mexico. Soderbergh refused to have the Mexican characters speaking English as he thought the Spanish dialogue communicated the "impenetrability another culture".
  • Van in Black: Played with. Helena, wife to a drug dealer who is in custody and under investigation, brings lemonade to the cops keeping an eye on her house.