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When the movie Traffic burst onto U.S. movie screens in December 2000, the pundits were unanimous: By confronting a difficult subject in a compelling, head-on manner, the film would force Americans to grapple with an anti-drug crusade that was costing billions of dollars a year and sending millions of people to jail, yet doing little to stop the flow of illegal substances. So determined was director Steven Soderbergh to rub American noses in the truth that a thorough and penetrating debate would be impossible to put off any longer.Since then, the drug-war juggernaut has continued to roll.
Drug arrests remain at record levels, the militarization of Colombia continues unabated, and John Walters, the Bush administration’s Drug-Czar, is even more hard-line than his predecessors. Although Traffic was supposed to change the way Americans talk and think about drugs, it in fact changed little at all.So where did the filmmakers go wrong? Is the war on drugs so big at this point that it is simply impervious to criticism? Or was Traffic less than it seemed, a movie that, for all the hype and glory, preferred to bob and weave rather than engage its subject in direct combat? The answer is the latter.
Traffic didn’t just pull its punches—it gave assistance to the other side. While depicting the drug war as an exercise in futility, it celebrated the drug-war rank and file, the frontline drug cops, as heroes. While showing why the rationale for the drug war doesn’t add up, it refused to consider any alternatives to today’s neo-prohibitionist policies and managed to avoid all mention of the dreaded L-word (i.e. legalization). The result was a dual message: As hopeless as the drug war may be, there is no alternative, which is why it will keep rolling forward in the face of all criticism. It was a point the movie drove home in one of its final scenes in which a drug enforcement agent named Montel Gordon bravely plants a bug in the home of a ruthless drug kingpin. “Tell him how you murdered my partner, Ray Castro,” the drug agent hollers as he is hustled away. It’s a lousy war, the generals don’t know what they’re doing, but the guys in the trenches will keep soldiering on because they’re soldiers and that’s what soldiers do.This is the “grunt’s-eye-view” long beloved of Hollywood producers. But for all its cynicism, the effect is actually to strengthen militarism by marginalizing its critics. The movie moguls thus get to have their cake and eat it too. They get to criticize the drug war while scoring points with the drug warriors who bash down doors and make arrests. Traffic’s fundamental duplicity comes through most clearly in comparison with the 1989 British TV miniseries on which it was based.
Written by Simon Moore and directed by Alastair Reid, Traffik —the filmmakers used the German spelling because much of it was set in Hamburg—was far from perfect. By weaving together three different stories in order to show how heroin makes its way from Pakistan to Great Britain, it highlighted an aspect of the modern drug trade that is certainly squalid and unpleasant, but far from representative of the phenomenon as a whole. This was more than a bit one-sided. Still, the film was refreshingly un-melodramatic in its discussion of the political economy of opiate production and its effect on upscale users. Rather than putting the blame on evil drug lords, it explored the real-life forces that drive poppy cultivation in the first place. Indeed, when a poppy farmer named Fazal is forced off the land by government troops, it shows him moving his family to Karachi and taking a job with an especially vicious trafficker. Rather than freeing Fazal from the nightmare, the drug war sends him tumbling in deeper.
Traffik’s perspective was economic and political. It showed the drug trade to be as impersonal in the final analysis as trade in grain or steel. Although highly faithful to the British original in certain respects, the Hollywood remake shifts the emphasis. Instead of poor farmers trapped by economic circumstances, it opens with a couple of Mexican police officers battling against the drug trade despite a vast and monstrous conspiracy against them. Rather than presenting the problem in terms of economics, Traffic moralizes it by presenting it as a battle between good-guy cops and bad-guy narcotraficantes. The film then cuts to a drug bust across the border in San Diego, in which dealers and drug agents blast away at one another with semi-automatics and cops hurtle high fences in pursuit of fleeing criminals. Just as Traffik showed police shooting a suspected trafficker in the foot, Traffic does also. But where the first film described the incident as an accident, the second shows it as purposeful, a bit of humorous horseplay by a couple of likable narcs.Police brutality is thereby condoned. Where Traffik centered around a British politician named Jack Lithgow, Traffic features a federal judge in Cincinnati named Bob Hudson Wakefield who has just been tagged to become the new Washington Drug Czar. Where Lithgow lives in a relatively modest London row house despite being a member of government, his American counterpart lives with his wife and daughter in a palace in a wealthy suburb, flits around the country in a private jet, and hobnobs with big shots at glamorous Georgetown cocktail parties.Intellectual analysis fades into the background. In its place, we get a lot of high-voltage action interspersed with set speeches whose chief purpose is to underscore the hopelessness of it all. “The worst part about you, Monty, is you realize the futility of what you’re doing, and you do it anyway,” a dealer-turned-federal witness tells one of his DEA escorts. “You only got to me because you were tipped off by the Juarez cartel, who’s trying to break into Tijuana. You are helping them. So, remember, you work for a drug dealer, too….” The agent just laughs it off. When Michael Douglas’ Drug Czar, alarmed at how little the drug war is accomplishing, demands of his underlings that they “think outside the box” and come up with something new, the silence is deafening. Yet in refusing to consider any alternatives to the drug war itself, Traffic is unwilling to think outside the box as well.
Where the original struggled to avoid bombast, the remake piles it on. After being briefly jailed as part of a drug bust the Drug Czar’s daughter Caroline tells an incredulous social worker that not only does she get straight A’s at the elite private school she attends, but that she is also vice-president of her class and a member of a half-dozen student clubs to boot. This is one high-achieving teenager who seems to have her drug use in control, yet the movie struggles to invent a problem where none necessarily exists. Only when the girl is locked in her room and forced to enter a 12-step program does she pitch scarily downhill and ends up in bed with a well-muscled dealer who is African-American. With that, Traffic dredges up the worst propaganda of the 1920s and 1930s, in which drugs were portrayed as the ultimate evil that turned innocent girls into “white slaves” at the hands of Svengali-like Jews, Fu Manchu-style Orientals, or primitive blacks.Underscoring this lurid melodrama is a streak of of prudery that is also typically American. Unlike the first movie, it rarely shows its main character without a drink in hand. When the new drug czar reminds his wife of her own drug past, she angrily retorts, “I’m not the one who has to have three scotches just to walk into the house and say hello.” The point, hammered home with the usual Hollywood subtlety, is that the drug warriors are no better than the people they are chasing because they are no less drug-dependent. Yet the overall effect is to underscore the filmmakers’ own hypocrisy.
Just as Hollywood movies of an earlier era were unable to depict extramarital sex as leading to anything other than scandal and suicide, Traffic is unable to show booze leading to anything other than raging arguments and divorce. The idea that alcohol is not necessarily evil and that some people might actually derive pleasure from its use is verboten in the new puritanical climate, as of course is any suggestion that drugs might lead to something other than arrest, prostitution and death by overdose.
This is at least part of the reason why Traffic was such a huge success. In a culture based on surface impressions, it offers the appearance of being hard-hitting while waffling about the subject at hand. It pretends to probe deeply while contenting itself with superficial clichés. This has allowed critics, pundits, and politicians to applaud it as a serious exposé without thinking very seriously about the problem it purports to expose. In a society in which people feel dwarfed by political institutions, it emphasizes the degree to which the drug war and the federal bureaucracy behind it are effectively beyond the citizenry’s control. Moviegoers see it as realistic because it mirrors the passivity and helplessness that they themselves feel.
Hollywood is not incapable of making good movies about the drug war. Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989) was a brilliant tour of the life of an addict, while Rush (1991), based on Kim Wozencraft’s account of her experiences as an undercover cop in Tyler, Texas, was a powerful examination of how the drug war destroys lives far more effectively than any illegal substance. But films like these were effective because they were small, whereas Traffic is as thoughtless and overblown as the drug war it pretends to dissect.
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