(movie review written in 2001.)
Director Steven Soderberg packed quite a one-two punch in 2000, opening the year with the heavily (and rightly so) praised "Erin Brockovich" and ending with the equally excellent "Traffic". Both were also highly regarded during awards season. Based upon the miniseries "Traffic", screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and director/cinematographer Soderberg have changed some of it, but still have come up with a riveting and well-acted drama about the war on drugs - or, more specifically in this picture, cocaine.
The movie tells a few different stories that really don't often link up in a cinematic way, but in a different way, the lives of the characters all are connected in their world, simply further up or further down the chain. There's an Ohio Supreme Court Justice named Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), his wife, Barbara (Amy Irving), and their 16-year-old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen). Although the marriage isn't working quite as well as it used to, the bigger problem is that Robert, who has just been appointed the new leader in the war on drugs, finds out that his own daughter is heavily addicted to cocaine. In Mexico, Javier Rodriguez(Benicio Del Toro) is a police officer who finds himself in the middle of things in the drug trade. Finally, in San Diego, a housewife named Helen(Catherine Zeta-Jones) finds out that her husband (Steven Bauer) isn't quite in the business she thought he was.
There are several other supporting characters that revolve around the main stories. There's a pair of DEA Agents (Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle); Caroline's boyfriend (Topher Grace, quite a few steps away from his character in "That 70's Show"); Helen's lawyer (Dennis Quaid) and many others. In fact, there are over 100 speaking parts, but Soderberg is amazingly able to not only juggle them all, but keep them organized and easy to follow who's who.
Several of the performers give their best effort in recent years. Zeta-Jones and Douglas are both superb. Douglas downplays slightly, and yet still keeps the intensity as a man who finds that he's fighting the war on drugs at home. Zeta-Jones was previously outstanding in a sassy role in "Mask Of Zorro", but when she shows real talent for strong drama here, she's very impressive.
In terms of the two "drug" films of 2000, I have to say I was a little more impressed with Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream", but "Traffic" also remains an outstanding picture.
VIDEO: "Traffic" is presented by Criterion in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a new digital transfer that was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm interpositive. This new presentation does have some aspects where it improves upon the original release, but they aren't extremely apparent - in other words, the improvements are noticable, but subtle. A lot of tints, filters and other stylistic touches were used in this film (credited cinematographer Peter Andrews is actually Soderberg, who has served as cinematographer on many of his films) and the original USA release seemed to be a little softer overall than this one - the picture here often looked a tad sharper and offered a crisper, more well-defined image overall.
The picture appeared a little less flawed in other ways, in comparison to the original: some slight edge enhancement was once again visible in a few scenes here, but it seemed even less visible than the minor amount on the prior edition. The print used here seemed almost flawless - I did see a tiny speck or two, but that's about it. Of course, the grain is intentional. No pixelation was noticed.
Colors remained well-presented throughout, appearing crisp and vivid, with no smearing or other faults. Overall, Criterion's new transfer provides a slightly smoother transfer, with a few less minor flaws than the prior edition.
SOUND: "Traffic" is again presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. I noted in my review of the original DVD that, "mainly though, the picture is dialogue-driven and often folds-up to a rather basic audio presentation". On the Soderberg/Gaghan commentary, the director confirms that the audio has been essentially folded-up - the film is presented in mono, with the score as the element that is the exception to that. Audio quality is still quite enjoyable, as the score remained crisp and clear, as did dialogue. While I still would have liked more activity, I suppose the film was going for a "documentary" feel to the audio and the subdued presentation works.
MENUS: Criterion has crafted exceptional animated main menus for both discs - each uses images and scenes from the film wonderfully as backgrounds. As per usual, Criterion's sub-menus are easily navigated and offer solid options (play all, etc.)
Commentaries: The first disc includes three commentaries with the film. The first is a director/writer commentary with Steven Soderberg and Stephen Gagan. I've always found the director's commentaries very enjoyable and, although I can't say that this is my favorite of the ones that he's done, it's very enjoyable. Soderberg and Gaghan go over a terrific amount of detail about all aspects of the production, from working with the actors and casting to more technical details like the look of the picture. As per usual, Soderberg brings his dry wit, combined with some subtle sarcasm - a few touches of his humor here and there keep the track not only informative, but entertaining.
The second commentary is from consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien, along with producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz and Laura Bickford. This commentary often does not focus specifically on what's going on in the particular scene, but remains as interesting as the other track. The consultants provide a wealth of information about the realities of how the DEA, and the war against drugs in general, works. The producers also provide a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the production, as well, discussing day-to-day work on the production and offering additional details and analysis of scenes. The third commentary is from composer Cliff Martinez, which is a mixture of isolated score and commentary. The participants in the first commentary were recorded together - the participants on the second track have not; their comments are edited together.
The three commentaries by themselves would have made for a very nice, if not entirely remarkable edition. Criterion has thankfully decided to go all the way with this Special Edition, which has several additional supplements on Disc 2.
Deleted Scenes: 25 deleted scenes are presented, with optional commentary from director Soderberg and writer Gaghan. There's about 26 minutes worth of material altogether, most of which is very interesting, but was cut for pacing/time reasons. The two also provide great discussion of why each scene was deleted. The last of the scenes is actually a pretty funny blooper involving Zeta-Jones. In addition, the scenes can either be watched individually or there is a "play all" option, too.
Editing Demonstration: Stephen Mirrione, who has worked with Soderberg ("Traffic" and "Ocean's 11") as well as Doug Liman ("Go", "Swingers"). Mirrione offers a discussion over what he sees in the editing room; a computer screen at the bottom shows the layers of the scene, while the scene itself plays in the upper half of the screen. The "angle" button can switch between this screen and an additional version where the image from the film itself can be viewed. It's a little difficult to understand at first, but it's fascinating to learn and see how the editor goes through the different pieces/layers of a particular scene and works to cut down the different elements into one full sequence. The editor discusses 4 sequences.
Film Processing Demo: This section shows the five steps that were taken to add the sort of yellowed, desaturated look of the Mexico sequence.
Dialogue Editing: "Traffic"'s sound editor Larry Blake provides a fascinating discussion of how recording is done on-set during four sequences. We also get a chance to hear the different layers of sound that were recorded for the scenes.
Trailers: The film's theatrical trailer, teaser trailer and 5 TV spots are offered.
Raw Footage: Although there are finished deleted scenes on disc two, this raw footage for four sequences (EPIC - El Paso Intelligence Center; Drug Warehouse, Cocktail Party, Kids on Street) gives the viewer a chance to see all of the footage that was shot to capture a particular sequence before it gets sorted out in the editing room. In addition, most of this footage offers multiple angles, giving viewers the chance to see the scene from a couple of different perspectives. There's quite a bit of footage here as well - this isn't a small section.
Trading Cards: DEA trading cards are also included in a gallery on disc two.
Final Thoughts: "Traffic" remains a powerful picture that easily handles a group of compelling stories about the war on drugs. Although I don't always recommend upgrading to the Special Edition for those who bought this originals, this is clearly a case of a very major improvement over the rather bare-bones original release, in terms of supplements. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2