The film is well made by Steven Soderbergh, who handheld his own camera and often edits in an artless, documentary style. The picture is full of strong, soberly realistic performances; its melodramatic beats are not too many and, in context, not particularly overstated. Finally, though, Traffic, for all its earnestness, does not work. It leaves one feeling restless and dissatisfied.
Partly it's a structural problem. The film is telling three distinct stories. One is about a judge from Cincinnati, Ohio, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), who is appointed by the President to be the new national drug czar only to discover that his own daughter (well played by Erika Christensen) is an addict, headed toward the lowest levels of degradation. Another is about an honest Mexican drug-enforcement officer (a marvelously watchful Benicio Del Toro) mystified by the cruel omnipotence of Tomas Milian, who is more or less Wakefield's Hispanic counterpart. The final story is of a San Diego material girl (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose lifestyle is threatened when her husband is arrested for high-level trafficking. She proves to be a very tough nut when she takes over the family business.
We have left out a lot of details in this rough account of a very long and complicated narrative--for instance, Don Cheadle's smart, funny cop on perpetual stakeout, Miguel Ferrer's cynically truthful midlevel dealer--but there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another.
But that's not the biggest problem with Traffic. At one point Douglas' character convenes his staff and asks them to "think outside the box" about solutions to the drug problem. They don't come up with much, and neither do these filmmakers. "Oh, please," we murmur, seeing that Wakefield's daughter is hooked. "Oh, sure," we say when we learn that Milian's cruelty is corruption's mask. "What else?" we ask when a character is assassinated before he can testify against the higher-ups in his operation.
These are the cliches of a hundred crime movies, and bringing them all together in one place does not, finally, constitute an act of originality, no matter how interesting the details sometimes are, no matter how expertly they are presented. It may be that the magnitude of the problem is bound to strike dumb anyone who addresses it. It may also be that a mainstream movie doesn't dare consider more than offhandedly the radical alternatives to an official policy. We win tactical victories of the kind this film chronicles. But we are losing the "war" because its strategies are undiscussible.