An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

As Steven Soderbergh continues to threaten retirement, we look back at his biggest Oscar year.

By , Columnist

(If it can be difficult to remember who won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s downright mindbending trying to remember everything else it was up against. In An Honor To Be Nominated, I’ll be taking a look back at some of the movies the Oscar didn’t go to and trying to determine if they were robbed, if the Academy got it right, or if they should ever have been nominated in the first place.)

The Contender: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 - Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

For some time now, Steven Soderbergh has been announcing, then denying, then confirming, then back-pedaling, then reconfirming his intent to retire from filmmaking. Then of course, he keeps picking up projects like a rock-bottom Navin Johnson leaving behind his wife and mansion in The Jerk. In a recent New York Times interview, Soderbergh seemed to be fairly definitive, saying he wants to pursue painting after completing just one…no, make that three more pictures. Unless he changes his mind.

While Soderbergh continues his long goodbye from the film business and with one of his (possibly) last films, Contagion, premiering September 9, it seems like a good time to look back at arguably his finest year, 2000. It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves why Steven Soderbergh matters and why his retirement would indeed be a blow to the movie industry.

Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations.

In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently in 2000. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the only Best Picture winners not to be honored for either directing or writing as well.

Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is heavily addicted herself. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear.

Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs.

I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters.

We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the eleven years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position.

Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Universal or on DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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Adam Jahnke has been writing about film since age 13, when he began foisting a self-published newsletter on friends and family (copies of which are now mercifully lost to the ages). In 2000, he joined the staff of the highly respected DVD website The Digital Bits, where he continues to serve as columnist…

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