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
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
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.
The drug war goes up against
the wall in Traffic.
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
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.