Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 epic about the War on Drugs, gets a ton of mileage out of telling gritty, taught stories about real people, and letting an audience decide. For an infuriating, maddening issue like the war on drugs, he seems to have prescribed a hard-reset on narrative conventions of genre and heroism. What we get instead feels like a documentary: a film in which every character arrives in frame motivated by circumstance and emotion. Nobody is good or bad, they are simply victims of their environment. Suddenly it’s all understandable – there is no “evil” in this world, there are simply people doing the best with what they have, and sometimes that means taking a bribe, or pushing freebase, or selling out to wealthy criminal. It’s a bold choice to humanize the enemy, rather than vilify him, but I’d say it does the trick.
In his insanely good State of Cinema speech to the San Francisco Film Festival this year, Soderbergh called art “a very elegant problem-solving model.” In the hands of a smart filmmaker, this idea has enormous power – suddenly the medium is no longer about escape or transportation. With this idea, film can even aspire to be more than “life-affirming,” which seems to be the benchmark of absolute quality. As a model for problem solving, film can be life-prolonging. Did Traffic make people think twice about starting or continuing to use or buy drugs? Absolutely. Were lives saved in that equation? Hard to say, but I’m cool with ‘yes.’
I was very frightened by Traffic when I saw it in the theater. I was in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really any of the violence or unsavory characters that frightened me, or even the underaged drug use, but by the choice it left me with. The events in Traffic are emblematic of a problem that defies solution – some days getting worse, some days getting better, but always, always there. My take-away was very personal. I remember thinking that I, myself stood on the precipice of choice, not just on viewing the film, but every day henceforth – to wake up every day prepared to reject drugs, or in one puff to become both victim of and accomplice to a war being fought every day, complete with bloodshed, corruption, and no-end-in-sight. By asking us to make a choice, Soderbergh has taken a major step toward “solving” a problem – with a choice, there can be progress. Continue reading