Not long into "Traffic," a weary, burned-out general (James Brolin) says to Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), his successor as the nation's drug czar, "I'm not sure I made the slightest difference." Later, after Wakefield faces the futility of his new post and wakes up to his own battles on the domestic front, he makes a rather stunning confession to a roomful of reporters: "I don't know how you wage war on your own family." What might have been didactic is rendered in the most poignant of terms.
Those are just two among the many voices of desperation adding up to a stunning chorus of discontent in Steven Soderbergh's ambitious, multilayered meditation on the drug war in America. Soderbergh's film, his second this year after the entertaining, deceptively artful "Erin Brockovich," was written by Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") and inspired by Traffik, a 1989 British miniseries that followed the drug route from Pakistan to London. The director borrowed the central thesis and the documentary feel in the service of something larger: an accomplished piece of social realism that amounts to the most satisfying movie of the year.
Soderbergh, working as his own cinematographer, incorporates herky-jerky, hand-held effects and offers a distinctive color scheme for each strand of the narrative. The opening sequence, set in Mexico and shot in washed-out sepia tones, introduces sharp-witted cop Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his nervous partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas). The two dutifully stake out the arrival of a plane full of cocaine, successfully capturing a van, only to be intercepted by Gen. Salazar (a creepy Tomas Milian) and drawn into his suspicious plot to destroy a Tijuana cartel.
A blueish hue colors the scenes set in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., where rising-star judge Wakefield is introduced to the ins and outs -- and vast bureaucratic complications -- of his new job. He gathers advice from various politicos at a Georgetown cocktail party, hobnobbing with real-life senators like Barbara Boxer and Orrin Hatch, and goes for a socially acceptable drug, scotch and soda, after absorbing all the distressing facts and figures. He drinks to "take the edge off," he explains later. Meanwhile, Wakefield's 15-year-old daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen, making a striking film debut) is freebasing cocaine with her boyfriend (Topher Grace).
San Diego, its bright, sunshiny, color-saturated look a stark contrast with the crime and corruption afoot, is the connection between Latin America and the suburbs of America's heartland. There, tough undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are about to close a deal with fast-talking dealer Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) when all hell breaks loose. Ruiz's capture leads to an arrest across town, where the oceanside home of wealthy, aristocratic drug kingpin Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is raided by government forces. Ayala's pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), first turns to slimy lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) for help and then determines to set the family's finances straight by taking matters into her own hands.
The cast is rounded out by Amy Irving, Peter Riegert, Benjamin Bratt, Clifton Collins Jr. and Albert Finney, and all turn in blue-chip work; acting ensembles rarely come as excellent as that chosen for "Traffic." Each character deserves our attention, and one leaves, after a thrilling 147 minutes, wondering what the filmmaker might have done with another hour or so to more fully develop the individual stories.
It's nevertheless fascinating to watch as "Traffic" unfolds, as the various stories are threaded together, bit by bit and with more than a few surprising twists, into a celluloid patchwork reminiscent of Robert Altman's most accomplished efforts. Here's hoping Soderbergh's finest work to date gets the traffic it deserves, and Oscar attention to boot.