Written by Stephen Gagham
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

Traffic is a diamond-hard film about compromises; they gather like flies swarming around something rotten--in this case, the booming economy of the cocaine trade. But for the most part we stick with the flies, and that's what sets Steven Soderbergh's epic apart from those beautiful junkie tragedies like last year's Requiem for a Dream, which plunged us harrowingly down the standard doomed trajectory of bad to worse. Here, the demand for drugs is a grim premise, impervious to countervailing forces of law and crime; new addictions bloom in the harsh crackdown, leaving the queasy feeling of stalemate.

Cynicism makes for a cold bill of fare, but Stephen Gaghan's quietly conceptual script (based on an '80s British TV miniseries) pushes through the material to its internal terrain, modulating a dozen or so characters--users, dealers, lawmen and footsoldiers--from their initial earnestness to futility and a wising-up that registers as survival. He makes many of the same points over--fewer than you might expect in two and a half hours--but Soderbergh splinters the repetition into a masterful disconnect that's wholly appropriate: Only federal czars and their militarized campaigns would dare suggest the war on drugs has a clear target, much less an "exit strategy."

It has taken Soderbergh less than a year to re-emerge as Hollywood's leading liberal,

The drug war goes up against the wall in Traffic.

first with Erin Brockovich and now Traffic. The studios must be very proud of these films: the director as designated political conscience. (Soderbergh also likes using stars and works leanly.) But his craft makes for greater rewards: Traffic controls its sprawl better than Magnolia and it's funnier than The Insider. Moreover, Soderbergh has an innate feel for confessional monologue and doubt--a generosity to his players extending back to his debut, sex, lies and videotape.

One notices this right away in Traffic as it introduces Michael Douglas as a pot-busting Ohio judge called to Washington to be the new drug czar. As he is debriefed, first by the chief of staff (a brusk Albert Finney, scheduling him for some "face time" with the president), then by an intense aide and finally by his exhausted predecessor, a general who suspects an ulterior power-grab, Douglas seems almost overwhelmed by the flood of no-nonsense advice. Soderbergh, better than most, plays off the built-in drama in this veteran actor's face--its potential for weakness barely concealed by uprightness. He's building his film from reactions, a strategy that collects more unstable faces: a cagey Tijuana policeman with lazy, Mitchum-esque eyes (Benicio Del Toro); a pregnant and contentedly oblivious mom (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who returns home from lunch at the country club to find her drug-importer husband being carted off to jail; a ripe-cheeked teen-ager (Erika Christensen) reclining into teary bliss as she freebases with her prep-school friends. (One of the film's first ironies has her meeting her father at the airport: It's the new drug czar bragging about his presidential face time.)

Soderbergh so dedicates his camera to these private battles behind furrowed brows that he actually ends up freeing himself from bang-bang plot mechanics and hot confrontations, arriving at an even sharper realism. (Del Toro burns such an impression, you forget he's speaking almost exclusively in Spanish.) A color-coded tonal palette is bold enough to border on the crude: dusty yellows and browns for the scenes in Mexico, ice-blues for the party-liners in Washington and Ohio, blown-out pastels for Zeta-Jones' La Jolla comfort zone slipping into its hazy nightmare. But Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer under a false name, knows what he's doing, saving time he would otherwise spend on setting up bearings for an across-the-board deepening of solitary anxieties.

These grapplings add up to something fluidly narrative; Traffic is no more exhilarating than in its rhythms, its rhymes. When Douglas hails a drink at a stifling Georgetown soirée (complete with real-life senators keen for some of that wicked movie highlife), it's punctuated by his escapist's lunge to the bar that's close to a desperate plea. Increasingly frayed by his daughter's lapse, Douglas is "tired of talking to experts who have never left the Beltway" and touches down like a space alien in Mexico City for a promising appointment with a high-ranking federalé. But a reverse shot during their meeting reveals Del Toro sitting in at the periphery; his part has finally caught up to those defeated eyes and we already know that his superior is crooked. Addicts heal themselves, the federalé offers glibly, and suddenly we're with the daughter, bored at her rehab camp and destined to run.

Only occasionally do the transitions feel groundless: Zeta-Jones takes to her imprisoned husband's line of work with a savvy that's too abrupt, ferociously ordering hits on a witness and securing exclusive distribution in his absence. Maybe if she played it more knowingly--or vapidly materialistic--her shift from carpooler to druglord would strike the necessary satiric notes. Instead the half-smart character seems to have truly been in the dark for all those years. (And if you're married to a handsome slime like Steven Bauer, how could you not know?)

There's plenty of pungent sauce to spread around though, especially Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle reprising their hilarious by-play from Boogie Nights, now as cops who dream of busting the big (white) boys, Miguel Ferrer as their tough-talking captive, and Dennis Quaid as a weaselly lawyer who looks both ways before sitting down with his client. Special mention also should be made of the young actor Topher Grace who, as another prep-school druggie, mouths off a tumbling corker of arrogant barrage at Douglas.

By the time we get back to Washington, we've seen so much horrifying evidence--student IDs pressed against a crack hotel's check-in window, the scared lope of an informant running for his life, a liquefying toy made of high-impacted cocaine--as to make Finney's hair-parted hardliner register as woefully impotent. Traffic is receiving a great many kudos for being comprehensive (which it is), but it's far from objectively balanced, as if this sympathetic canvas needed an unrepentant hawk to make it complete. You get the message loud and clear in an elegant series of dissolves: a never-ending circle of recovering addicts, so many like us.

The smarty-pants Coen brothers have their answers too--or so their defenders have always claimed--but with O Brother, Where Art Thou? they might have finally relaxed into some. It's about a trio of escapees from a Mississippi chain gang, each supplied with his own bug-eyed signature: angry Pete of the jutting lower jaw (John Turturro), gentle Delmar of the gap-mouthed squint (Tim Blake Nelson) and smoothie Everett of the pomaded pomp (George Clooney). Their comic misadventures are credited to The Odyssey, but I can't imagine anyone but tweedy college professors mistaking this for heft; the Coens certainly don't, though for good measure we get a Bible-selling Cyclops (John Goodman), some alluring sirens and a more pragmatic Penelope (Holly Hunter) than Homer ever intended--she's found herself a new man and he's "bona fide."

No, this isn't about fidelity to sources, except to the Depression-era old-timey songs that sweetly fill in the gaps. Early on, the convicts wander into a radio station and cut a track for cash--it's an electrifying single take of the hobo anthem "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" (the lead voice belongs to Dan Tyminski)--and the film's wandering spirit crystallizes. Melody is just what the gab-happy Coens have long needed more of; another sequence of car-stealing and campfire high jinks comes pretty close to poetry as set to the Kossoy Sisters' angelic "I'll Fly Away." When these "Soggy Bottom Boys" (as they come to be beloved as) eventually make it to the stage and thrill the crowd--well, you can decide if O Brother needs to mean anything more than that.


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