The Criterion Collection has re-released Soderbergh’s masterpiece, Traffic. 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 Martinez, 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.