Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Caught in "Traffic"

by Jason Pyles / January 14, 2009

This week’s film is “Traffic,” which was selected by Andrew James. I’m interested to know why he chose this as an example of an unusual film.

After some thought, I concluded that the most unusual aspect about “Traffic” is that it’s actually a drama about the illegal drug industry — and not a shoot-‘em-up action flick. Most movies with a backdrop of drug wars have gun battle after gun battle, but “Traffic” sticks to its agenda as a message film.

At the 73rd Academy Awards, which recognized the films of 2000, “Traffic” was nominated for Best Picture, contending with “Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Erin Brockovich” and that year’s winner, “Gladiator.” The director of “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh, won Best Directing for this film, but he was also nominated again that same year for “Erin Brockovich,” which he also directed. Robert Osborne, who writes the “Official History of the Academy Awards” notes that a director hasn’t had dual contenders for Best Picture since the 1948 Oscars; nor has a director competed with himself with two films in Best Directing since 1938.

“Traffic” also afforded Benicio Del Toro an Oscar for Supporting Actor, Stephen Gaghan for its Writing, and Stephen Mirrione for its Film Editing.

Some aspects of the film-style are blatant: Notice that the scenes that take place in Mexico are typically a little overexposed and have an overall yellow, sun-bleached tint, as if looking through those cheap, yellow-lens sunglasses. And the scenes set in D.C. and Ohio have a bluish tone. Other than differentiating the story lines, I’m not sure what purpose these colors served, unless they were simply artistic whimsy.

I enjoyed how the stories would barely graze one another, overlapping from time to time — typically with a passing vehicle or a pedestrian. The film’s other prevalent stylistic decision is an unusual but wonderful shot that appears to be upside down as the camera (aka “we”) watch a helicopter land on top of it.

I’ve loved Benicio Del Toro in everything I’ve ever seen him in, but I’m still not sure why he got an Oscar for this role; though I’m not particularly fond of the actress, Erika Christensen’s drug addict “Caroline” is notably persuasive during her trips, and perhaps more deserving of recognition.

So what is the message? The tagline is “No One Gets Away Clean,” which is convincingly depicted in “Traffic.” In summary I think the film is trying to tell us the War on Drugs is ultimately futile, but the dangerous and costly efforts matter to those individuals who receive assistance. But still, no one gets away clean.

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