Adopting a kind of crazy-quilt approach to their subject, Soderbergh and scriptwriter Stephen Gaghan (and editor Stephen Mirrione) have sewn together the patches from three separate stories. In one, a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) negotiates his way through the vast corruption south of the border. In another, a San Diego drug baron's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) tries to keep the family business afloat after her husband is arrested. And in the last, an Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) takes over as the country's drug czar, only to have his own teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) succumb to crack. Individually, the stories are rather weak, even trite. Collectively, they offer us a God's-eye view of the drug war, like an aerial photograph that shows how everything's connected. For this alone, Traffic would be worth seeing.
There's also the myriad performances, marred in places by celebrity casting. (Look, it's Albert Finney!) And there's that edgy surface. Soderbergh shot the movie himself, using available light whenever possible, and the tone is somewhere between "Cops" and "Frontline"--C-SPAN verité. That's one of the reasons Traffic doesn't have the emotional impact it might otherwise have had. It's like "Miami Vice" without the clothes, alive but strangely narcotized. For all my reservations, I highly recommend the movie, and I especially admire its defeatist take on the drug war. As with the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs may not be winnable. The difference is that, this time, we can't pack up and head home.