DVD Review: Traffic (Criterion Collection)

March 09, 2006
El Bicho

The Criterion Collection has re-released Soderbergh's masterpiece, Traffic (2000). The critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning film weaves together three stories about different aspects of America's War on Drugs. Michael Douglas plays Ohio judge Robert Wakefield, who is appointed as the drug czar. He is ready to fight the war hard and win it, but he has no idea the size and scope of the battlefield, which is why he is surprised to discover his home is in occupied territory. In San Diego, Catherine Zeta-Jones lives a wealthy, comfortable lifestyle and is completely unaware that it is financed by her husband's drug-smuggling until he is taken away from their home in handcuffs by the DEA. Having to deal with maxxed out credit cards, tax liens, and being shunned by her friends would be a tough ordeal for any woman, but when the life of her young child is threatened by men her husband owes $3 million to, she has to make hard choices she never considered before. In Mexico, Benicio Del Toro is a state policeman who along with his partner discovers that the work to take down the Obregon brothers' drug cartel wasn't to make the streets of Tijuana safer, but to eliminate competition.

The film is absolutely brilliant on all levels. The screenplay is able to keep all three plotlines captivating by creating believable characters for this talented ensemble to portray. And what an ensemble it is. This is the film that subscribes to the motto that there are no small roles because even characters that make brief appearance come across as fully formed, as if the story might follow them at any time. The cinematography by Soderbergh, credited as Peter Andrews, is masterful. The three storylines each have their own look, using light and film stock to set the mood and help the viewer follow along. Ohio is tinted blue; Mexico is yellow and grainy; San Diego is bright and colorful. Each one adds something different to the story being told.

Five years later, it is still one of the best films of the decade. Its Best Picture loss to Gladiator becomes harder to understand with each day that passes. Because the film retains its power and its craftsmanship is of such a high quality, it makes sense that the DVD was entrusted in the hands of The Criterion Collection. They set the standard for what to expect in bonus features back in 1984 with their first laserdisc releases.

A number of the filmmakers of their releases are deceased, so film historians and scholars perform the commentary tracks. Alongside rare interviews and other archival footage, Criterion provides what amounts to a film class about an artist and his work. The features on the two-DVD set of Traffic are so extensive and so informative that after viewing all of them, you may be eligible for a film school certification.

One commentary track is by Soderbergh and Gaghan, who discuss the work that went into the script. Soderbergh also spends time discussing his use of lens, lights and filters. A second track features producers Laura Bickford, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz. They reveal more of the financial aspects and business dealings that it takes to make the film. They are joined separately by two men who provide a lot of background to the factual material Traffic is based on. Tim Golden is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New Your Times. Craig Cheritien is a former DEA Chief of Intelligence. He provides great insight into the police and federal agents who are involved in the War on Drugs. The third track is by Cliff Matinez, the composer. He talks about his music in the film and what he was trying to achieve with it. He uses an isolated music track to bring focus to his work. I had not heard of a commentary track like this before and found it fascinating because music in film is usually in the background. It's a great asset for filmmakers and musicians to learn about synthesizing the elements.

Disc Two is filled with more intensive film studies. Soderbergh and Gaghan provide commentary for 25 deleted scenes. Additional footage of different scenes can be viewed from multiple angles. Demonstrations include film processing, which shows the five steps involved it took from the dailies to the answer print to achieve the "Mexico" look, film editing with commentary by editor Stephen Mirrone as he explains what he looks for as he builds a scene, and dialogue editing with supervising sound editor Larry Blake.

All the extras and specs from both discs look the same as the 2002 release, so I'm not certain what the purpose of the re-release is, but it makes for a great reason to remind people of this film. If you've never seen Traffic, do yourself a favor and make it the next thing you watch. If you are intrigued about how films are made, then buy this set and revel in it. If you love film and don't own it, you don't really love film.

Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
Screenplay by Stephan Gaghan
Adapted from the British mini-series Traffik written by Simon Moore

This writer is a member of The Masked Movie Snobs.
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DVD Review: Traffic (Criterion Collection)


Author: El Bicho


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Thomas M. Sipos
March 9, 2006
11:38 AM

TRAFFIC was okay, but THE PALERMO CONNECTION (ca. 1990, starring Mimi Rogers and Jim Belushi) is more explicitly anti-"drug war" film, and is in some ways better.

El Bicho
March 9, 2006
02:24 PM

Thomas, please provide examples. Always looking for a good film to watch.

One way Palermo is not better is that it hasn't been released on DVD according to a few sites. I'll keep an eye on the VHS bargain bins

Rodney Welch
March 9, 2006
02:30 PM

I probably ought to sit through Traffic again, but I hated it the first time -- mainly because of the cinematography, which I realize was done for artistic reasons but which made it unpleasant to watch. I wanted to spray Windex on the screen in the Mexico scenes and I keep wishing they'd flip the lights on in the Michael Douglas scenes. One of those movies where I just never got what people saw in it.

March 9, 2006
03:20 PM

I loved Traffic. And I loved the cinematography, I thought it was a beautifully shot film that actually had motivation behind how it was shot, instead of a lot of films that do something just because it looks cool.

Thomas M. Sipos
March 9, 2006
08:06 PM

I liked PALERMO for its blatancy. Belushi runs for mayor of New York on a drug-legalization plank. It looks like he'll win. Then the Mafia intervenes.

There's a speech where a Mafia don explains to Belushi that drugs bring tens of billions into Sicily every year, and that drug legalization would upset not only Sicily's, but the world's economy. There are too many people in power worldwide, businessmen and politicians and military and police and criminals, who need things to remain as they are. Belushi threatens to upset the order, and it will not be tolerated.

The don's speech was similar to that of the network chairman at the end of NETWORK.

PALERMO looks to have been written by a conspiracy theorist. It's more cerebral than many films; not your usual drug war shoot 'em up, where good guy cops blast away at baddie drug dealers.

March 9, 2006
09:32 PM

Great review, El B - hope to see it 'over there':)

Tan The Man
March 11, 2006
02:12 AM

Yeah, I'm still wondering what the difference is between this year's release and 2002's Criterion Collection DVD release.

El Bicho
March 11, 2006
03:11 AM

I was looking around and the previous release was a Criterion/Universal release and this edition is just listed as Criterion. might have something to do with it

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