When the new movie "Traffic" was being previewed at test screenings last fall, its director, Steven Soderbergh, took note of how much time audiences were spending filling out their report cards afterward and the emotion they brought to the focus groups discussing the film. Something was different, thought the director of such films as "Erin Brockovich," "Out of Sight" and "sex, lies and videotape."
"It was like they'd been waiting for someone to ask them about this issue," Soderbergh says.
The "issue," America's vaunted and enormously expensive "war on drugs," is the focal point of Soderbergh's multicultural dramatic thriller recently judged the best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle. Yet the director, in a self-effacing stance, says he believes that with "Traffic," the ideas on display engaged preview audiences as much as the film itself.
"I've done a lot of these previews and it's never been that intense," he says. "They wanted to talk about this."
Turned down by every major studio and finally produced by USA Films, "Traffic" barely got made at all, yet now looks to be connecting with a slowly building critical mass of thought questioning both the efficacy and wisdom of the long-accepted military approach to combating drug abuse that took shape almost 30 years ago during the Nixon administration. Even outgoing U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, said in an interview at the end of the year (without reference to the film), "We've got to drop the metaphor of 'the war on drugs.' "
Indeed there are some signs the political winds are beginning to shift. In November, California voters passed Proposition 36, which will divert nonviolent drug users from state prison into treatment programs. New Mexico's Republican Gov. Gary E. Johnson is an outspoken foe of the drug-war approach to the problem. And in the film, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer makes a cameo appearance at a Washington, D.C., cocktail party lobbying for the passage of a treatment-on-demand bill. (She's among several senators making cameos, including Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who has taken flak for appearing in an R-rated, politically charged film.)
"Personally," says Soderbergh, "I just felt like it was time to try to get a handle on this subject and that a movie was a really good way to do it."
But drug movies--or for that matter, films with a political theme--generally have not done big box office. Rebuffed by studio executives who didn't see the commercial viability of his idea, the director lowered himself to the level of Hollywood shorthand. "I kept describing it as 'Nashville' crossed with 'The French Connection,' but I don't know that that was helping."
"Traffic" opened in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 27 to some of the best reviews of the year. It went into wider national release on Friday, boosted by the buzz of critics' awards (Soderbergh was chosen as best director by several critics' groups for "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich") and talk of an Oscar nomination for best picture.
Based on a 1989 British television miniseries and relocated by screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Rules of Engagement") from Asia and Europe to the Americas, "Traffic" employs three separate but interlocking story lines to illustrate, in the director's words, "a sort of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' glimpse of what's going on, from how policy gets made to how the stuff [cocaine and heroin] gets from Mexico to a street corner in Cincinnati."
Michael Douglas plays an Ohio Supreme Court justice tapped to be the nation's next drug czar whose conventional assumptions about the morality of the "war" are shaken by his own teenage daughter's addiction and revelations about the inner workings of the Mexican drug cartels.
On the other side of the border, Benicio Del Toro plays a Mexican border policeman trying to uphold the law without angering members of his government who have a stake in the drug trade.
"In some ways, I'd been researching a movie about the war on drugs for 20 years," says Gaghan, a native of Louisville, Ky., who had been developing a script about drugs and gangs at Palisades High School for producer Ed Zwick when Soderbergh and producer Laura Bickford found him. With Zwick's consent and "to his everlasting credit," adds Soderbergh, Gaghan's project was merged with the adaptation of the British miniseries for "Traffic."
Gaghan was sent on an extensive research trip to Washington, D.C., and the U.S.-Mexico border. He found out, among other things, that "an honest cop on the border has a life expectancy of 30 days," "how much Tijuana has changed, with drug addiction, prostitution and petty crime going through the roof" and that "7% of all people for the last 5,000 years in all cultures have been addicted to something."