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The Criterion Collection presents
"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
DVD ReviewDrugs are a plague sweeping the world, slowly weaving their way through every reach of our lives. How does its destructive pattern begin? Some say that trafficking from Mexico is the root of the problem; that if we adopt a stricter view on the importing of the drugs we will slowly provide a solution. But people still find ways to get drugs, and as many will attest, it is easier to obtain drugs if you are underage than it is to buy tobacco or alcohol.
So we are faced with a nationwide epidemic. In the 1980s, we officially waged a "War on Drugs," and slogans preached "Just Say No," but few listened. In director Steven Soderbergh's epic film, Traffic, he not only explores how drugs cross over into the US by way of Mexico, but how those whom we least expect become casualities.
Told in three central pieces, Traffic tells the story of numerous lives separated by distance, brought together by struggles, personal or professional, with drugs. Robert Wakefield (Douglas), an Ohio judge, has recently been appointed as Drug Czar. In his eyes, his family is perfect: his wife Barbara (Irving) and daughter Caroline (Christensen) seem to be enjoying living the high life in a wealthy suburb of Cincinnati. Unknown to Robert, his daughter is experimenting with drugs, crack cocaine among them. When he does confronted her, Caroline runs away, only to spiral downward into the depths of addiction.
At the same time another family is torn apart by drugs in an entirely different way. Helena Ayala (Zeta Jones) is a wealthy San Diego woman with a a loving husband and baby on the way. She is oblivious to Carlos' (Bauer) real profession as the chief cocaine dealer on the West Coast until he is arrested. Not wanting to lose everything, she promptly takes over the business. Meanwhile, two DEA agents (Cheadle and Guzman) hold the key that will put Carlos away: a middleman named Eduardo Ruiz (Ferrer), but the price on his head is something Helena will gladly pay to keep up her lifestyle.
In Mexico, Javier Rodriguez (Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Vargas) have intercepted a shipment of drugs and are quickly put to work for a corrupt general (Milian) who is looking for an easy way to rid himself of competition in the drug market. Javier holds information that is considered valuable on both sides of the border and may be killed for what he knows—something Manolo does not seem to realize.
In each of these stories screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (adapting from a BBC mini series entitled Trafick) wisely gives the viewer both a villain and hero, but often blurs the lines so that we are never sure what is right and what is wrong. More than once, Traffic uses the rapture that drugs give users and offers a voice from each side, at times biting and sobering in their truth. This is most evident in the characters of Ruiz and Seth (Grace); each has a scene in which they either rail against the tactics used by the DEA and customs or the stereotypes that are undeniably misleading. But Gaghan's script is never actually chooses sides; it toes the line between honesty about the brutality of addiction and offering ideas and solutions that deserve careful thought.
As terrific as Gaghan's script is, it is the masterful direction by Steven Soderbergh that propels Traffic into greatness. Acting as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, his father's name) Soderbergh firmly establishes an authentic look and feel to each of the film's locations. For instance, the scenes set in Mexico are shown in a brighter light than the harsh blues used in the Cincinnati. While this works well as a visual choice, Soderbergh also uses these changes to make the viewer feel more comfortable following the different stories. We associate the colors with the different threads, making the transitions easier to follow as the stories unfold.
Considering that the film contains over 135 speaking parts, it is all the more impressive that Soderbergh keeps the viewer from becoming confused. Some ensemble pictures suffer from having too many characters and situations that they bog down. In Traffic, Soderbergh affect the opposite in the way that he keeps the film going despite so many characters and situations.
Anchored by a trio of strong performances, the cast assembled for Traffic displays an amazing depth of talent. Foremost is Del Toro, possibly the most underrated actor in Hollywood, in a powerfully believable performance. He brings to Javier a striking subtlety and context for what lies beneath the surface of a character torn between right and wrong. Christensen is also very good in her first feature film role; and her performance as Caroline is so emotionally stripped to the bone that her glowing youthfulness has vanished by the final act. Don Cheadle is terrific as the weathered DEA agent and his climactic moment is quite satisfying. Miguel Ferrer, Topher Grace, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones all turn in very good work as well.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: The packaging for Traffic does not indicate whether or not this edition features a new anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, but upon close inspection it seems that it does. The image has a much crisper look and is more film-like than its predecessor, though in several scenes (largely those set in Mexico), Soderbergh's use of filters to alter the appearance of the film makes this a difficult transfer to judge. Colors are perfectly rendered and show no bleed, while black levels offer nice depth with little grain. Print flaws and edge enhancement are never a problem; the transfer is very clean from start to finish. Given the artistic choices made by Soderbergh, I can honestly say that this DVD transfer makes Traffic look better on my equipment than it did the many times I viewed it theatrically.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original DVD for Traffic featured both a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as a special home video Dolby Surround mix and, as far as I can tell, there is little that has been changed for this edition. The film is mainly dialogue-driven and, given that it was recorded in mono and that only the soundtrack was mixed in stereo, this is a rather uneventful track. Dialogue sounds fine and is clear throughout, while ADR goofs are essentially nonexistent (according to the supplements on disc two, there were only three instances in which ADR was used). Speaker separation for the musical score is excellent, giving the mix a full sound, while the surround speakers are only sporadically used to create ambience.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 68 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 TV Spots/Teasers
25 Deleted Scenes
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan; producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Laura Bickford, and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien; Composer Cliff Martinez
Packaging: Double alpha
Three feature-ength commentary tracks are provided and each offers vast insights into the making of the film as well as the war on drugs. The first track is by director Soderbergh and writer Gaghan and focuses on the performances and the making of the film. Gaghan talks at length about his research and adapting the script for American audiences while Soderbergh discusses his choice of style, stories about the production and insight into the emotional impact of the picture. Gaghan, who himself is a recovering user, is particularly well spoken in a scene that he describes as having been transcribed from his own events; this offers a personal feel that is lacking from most commentary tracks.
The second features producers Edward Zwick, Marshall Herkovitz, and Laura Bickford, as well as consultants Tom Golden and Craig Chertien. I enjoyed this track more than the others because it covers nearly every aspect of the film. Bickford and her fellow producers discuss its creation and adaption, working with a large cast, and reveal why USA Films eventually took over distribution. Bickford is very well spoken and has an evident love for the film, while Chertien and Golden have infinite knowledge of the material they specialize in. Golden, a journalist, talks about his stories on Mexican drug trafficking; Chertien has a wealth of information about what actually happens in the DEA and other authoritative agencies in their fight against drugs.
The final track is by composer Cliff Martinez, edited in with his own score as well as two previously unheard music cues. Martinez does a fine job of explaining his musical choices for the film, as well as the challenge that came from composing entirely different themes for each of the three storylines. I admire Martinez for being so passionate about his score, but I found his comments were not always interesting. There are gaps of silence between musical cues and Martinez speaking that make the track feel sluggish and ultimately not in the same league as the others.
By placing the second disc in your player, you are as close to film school on a DVD as you can get. There are 25 deleted scenes with commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan. The two largely discuss why the scenes were excised, though it is obvious that they are fond of several of them. The character of Helena gained the largest cuts, as about half of these feature her in some capacity. Some scenes (including Legalization and Surveillance) seem to belong in the final cut, while others (Art Appraisal and Factory) are justified in their deletion from the film. The scenes are shown in 1.85:1 widescreen and are high quality. The list is as follows:
1. Manolo's anxiety escalates (00h:01m:07s)
2. Javier warns Manolo (00h:00m:33s)
3. Surveillance (00h:01m:04s)
4. Old friends (00h:01m:35s)
5. Legalization (00h:00m:53s)
6. Auction (00h:00m:43s)
7. Arnie confronts Helena (00h:00m:35s)
8. Madrigal's mistress and Manolo (00h:00m:40s)
9. Helena wants to help (00h:00m:40s)
10. Art appraisal (00h:01m:01s)
11. Helena gets involved (00h:00m:50s)
12. Robert's lunch with Seth (00h:02m:34s)
13. Helena asks to meet Obregon (00h:01m:29s)
14. Factory (00h:01m:00s)
15. Robert finds Caroline's drugs (00h:00m:59s)
16. Obregon tests Helena (00h:01m:57s)
17. Helena is searched at the border (00h:01m:41s)
18. Arnie comes through (00h:00m:50s)
19. Helena's meeting at Fun Zone (00h:00m:53s)
20. Robert drives Caroline home (00h:00m:52s)
21. Javier makes Obregon an offer (00h:01m:09s)
22. Robert meets Javier (00h:01m:43s)
23. Madrigal's mistress and Javier (00h:00m:44s)
24. Monte continues surveillance (00h:00m:23s)
25. Gag (00h:00m:33s)
Next is a selection of three filmmaking demonstrations that involve the look, editing, and sound design used in the making of Traffic. The first examines aspects of film processing and shows how the look of the Mexico sequences was achieved. Five steps are chronicled in the deconstruction of the original film negative and this sequence runs a little over five minutes. It is interesting to see the film become what it is in the final cut as opposed to where it began. This is a very interesting look at the filmmaking process.
Next is a look at the process of editing with optional commentary by editor Stephen Mirrione. Mirrione breaks down four sequences from the film: Overdose (00h:05m:41s), Caroline is caught (00h:04m:56s), Javier meets the DEA (00h:01m:47s), and Monte visits the Ayalas (00h:04m:28s). Each sequence is shown in its entirety in its original state as well as after using the AVID editing system. Mirrione is very informative in his demonstrations and makes clear why certain scenes were edited the way they were.
The final demonstration deals with dialogue editing. Sound editor Larry Blake offers commentary on four different sequences: The radio in the desert, Two guys running, ADR as a clean up tool, and ADR as a plot point tool. In his demonstrations, Blake walks the viewer through how sound is recorded, altered and ultimately mixed into the final cut of the film. In the Radio in the desert sequence he shows how a few slight changes add to the ambience of the scene, be they faint sighs or the sounds of a radio, off in the distance.
Also included are approximately thirty minutes of B-roll footage that Soderbergh edited together for this release. In four sequences we see multiple angles of existing scenes as well as improvisation that never made it into the film. These are: El Paso Intelligence Center (00h:03m:04s), Drug warehouse (00h:07m:00s), Cocktail party (00h:24m:39s) and Kids on street (3 angles 00h:00m:42s). The cocktail party sequence is the most interesting as it features politicians, lobbyists and other people in power discussing their opinions of the War on Drugs.
Finally, the teaser, theatrical trailer and five TV spots are presented, as are a collection of 103 K-9 trading cards of US customs dogs used in the detection of illegal drugs.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsIt takes a powerful film to expose the problems facing us today, and Traffic does so with ease. It strips the American "War on Drugs" down to the lowest level and asks questions that are often considered off limits. The Criterion Collection has given the film a proper treatment, making this a film and DVD that belong amongst the best works in recent years. Highly recommended.
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