Finely crafted ensemble
Stephen Gaghan has written this collection of drug stories in a detached way, setting up an ensemble story with no particular bias for any of its characters. The plot points are both unexpected, but not surprising, which is about the best compliment you can pay a writer, because it acknowledges both the truth in the story, and the brilliance of its execution. I have recently seen Gaghan speak in public. He sounds a bit like an educated David Spade, which is perhaps unexpected, but also not surprising. This is actually an adaptation of a well respected German miniseries. Gaghan's update and geographical changes work seemlessly, with no hint of being a derivative work.
Steven Soderbergh has shot this story with an equal and fitting amount of detachment as well. This is not to say we can't see into the characters minds, just that the performances are left to stand on their own, without benefit of melodramatic camerawork. And, speaking of the camera, Soderbergh continues to make interesting choices of film stock, in addition to putting his entire bag of stylized camera tricks to use.
The real key about Traffic is understanding what kind of movie it is. It's not a good guy / bad guy film. And it would be hard to convince me it's just a slice-of-life piece, though the laid-back style of the film goes far in support of that viewpoint. Only when you start talking about it being a message movie does anything really start to resonate, but that's even with plenty of reservation.
If Traffic really is a message movie, then the message would have to be that the drug war is not working, perhaps - and this is a stretch - even to argue for legalization. Yet the script goes far out of its way not to say that, except perhaps in the last ten or fifteen minutes when plotlines are allowed to resolve, and do so in a way that illuminates such a theme without hitting you over the head with it. With the question - Which came first, the story or the theme? - you might be correct to say theme in this case, but it doesn't matter so long as the final product puts the priority on story.
Did Benecio Del Toro deserve the Oscar he won for his performance in this film? For certain, it's an Oscar-worthy role, but I think part of the credit goes to Soderbergh for keeping the performances in check. The quality of the acting all around rose because of the quality of the material and the direction. It's hard to single out particular performances, but if you have to, Del Toro's certainly is not a bad choice.
What's flawed about this film? I'm hesitant to rank it among the very top films, though Traffic is certainly deserving of consideration. All the film departments are aiming high, and they likewise seem to hit the mark. For me, the difference is that, no matter how perfectly executed, there is always going to be a certain separation between the audience and the characters, because that's what kind of film this is. It's not a bad thing, but I just feel the very best need a deeper emotional connection to the characters.
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