After Stephen Soderbergh transformed "A Civil Action"--an environmentalist study of a small town fighting industrial polluters in court--into a sexploitative star vehicle for Julia Roberts, it should not surprise us that he would Hollywood-ize the hard-hitting television miniseries "Traffik". Made for Channel 4 in Great Britain in 1989, "Traffik" also appeared on public television in the United States one year later.
In "Traffic" Soderbergh has appropriated (or misappropriated) some core elements of the original, while leaving out others that would get in the way of his commercial goals. The resultant mess helps us understand how liberal taste-makers frame the "war on drugs" in the face of an impending war in Colombia. Considering that Soderbergh's first film was titled "Sex, Lies and Videotape", an appropriate subtitle for "Traffic" might be "Drugs, Lies and Hollywood".
In "Traffik", we are afforded a multi-tiered view of Great Britain's war on the heroin trade. The central figure is a British Home Office minister named Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson) who has been assigned to oversee that war. The irony, and one of the key dramatic elements of the tale, is that his daughter is a drug addict. While relentlessly pursuing the source of the "traffik" in Pakistan, he is constantly being pulled into his daughter's own maelstrom.
"Traffik" derives its German title from the fact that one of the politician's main antagonists is a German who uses a construction business as a front for a much more lucrative heroin import business. After he is arrested in the course of a major drug interdiction effort, his wife takes over--even though she has been innocent of his activities up to that point. Her easy slide into criminality serves to illustrate the point that nobody is immune from the enormous temptations of a quick profit. Not only does she assume control without missing a beat, she seems even more savvy than her jailed husband. She announces, ''I'm going to be strong about this. I'm not going to let go of everything we fought for'', as if the family business was commercial real estate.
In Soderbergh's film the terrain and the commodity have shifted. We are now dealing with the cocaine trade and its source is Mexico. The main character is an American drug czar Robert Wakefield, played by the ubiquitous Michael Douglas. His daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is a cocaine free-baser who turns to prostitution to pay for her habit. In a search for his daughter, which has all the hyped-up intensity of a Charles Bronson revenge melodrama, Wakefield descends into the Black community, which takes on the character of the Casbah. Blacks on the street appear menacing to Wakefield (and the largely white audience I saw the film with), as if each had a knife in one pocket and a drug stash in the other.
Another significant difference between the two films is how each drug czar relates to the rogue third world country where the drugs originate. In "Traffik", Lithgow is directing a campaign to wean Pakistani farmers away from growing opium toward legal cash crops. His idealistic hopes are eventually crushed when he realizes that there is no incentive for peasants to stop growing opium. Unfortunately nothing grows in the arid Pakistani soil as well as the poppy. "It doesn't need much water," Lithgow is told. "It doesn't need much in the way of nutrients. They are just weeds -- the richest weeds in the world." He learns that farmers must grow and harvest 10 acres of sugar cane to reap the profit from just three acres of poppies.
Perhaps the heroin and cocaine trade is driven by the same brute economic facts that drive the tobacco industry, a legal but much more toxic industry. According to the book "Barbarians at the Gate," investor Warren Buffett told Salomon Chairman John Gutfreund in 1987 "I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty.''
While "Traffik" is mostly about character development--particularly Lithgow's disillusionment--"Traffic" is mostly a lurid 'policier', a sort of big budget version of the old TV show "Miami Vice", in which law enforcement becomes paramount, despite the film's lip-service to the obvious truth that the war on drugs is unwinnable.
In Soderbergh's film, the major point of view in Mexico belongs to Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), an honest cop out to bust the corrupt Army general and the drug lords he protects. This Mexico is even more wicked than the Black community, at least in cinematographic terms. Soderbergh, who handled the camera itself for the Mexico location, uses a sulfur-yellow filter to make sure that the audience understands that this is a hellish place.
While "Traffik" takes place largely in Pakistan, where the opium is grown, there is no interest in finding out what conditions spawn the growth of coca. For that to take place, the film would have to include Colombia as a venue. If you restrict your terrain to Mexico, you are dealing solely with the finished product. And who else handles the finished product but case-hardened businessmen rather than people at the bottom, who rely on the soil to make a living.
This is where "Traffik" excels. The film begins with Fazal (Jamal Shah), an impoverished Pakistani farmer who grows opium poppies on his farm and ekes out barely enough money to support his wife and two children. Lithgow eventually meets Fazal and asks, "Do you know that people in the West are dying from the heroin you make?" "Sir, I grow opium, not heroin," Fazal replies. "You deal with the heroin problem."
Soderbergh is quite open about his desire to flatter law enforcement agencies in the USA, while simultaneously maintaining a hip "war on drugs can not succeed" 'tude. In a profile that appears in the Jan. 3-9 Village Voice, Soderbergh states
"I didn't want to come off like we had answers. The idea that some silly filmmaker after two years could sort it out would be outrageous. But there seems to be a huge vacuum in the public debate and I guess this is one of the few times I felt a movie could actually help. The funny thing is, everybody who sees it thinks it puts their point of view across, and I was expecting exactly the opposite. We had a screening in Washington for Customs, DEA, and the Department of Justice and they all came out saying they really liked it. The following night, there was some hardcore leftie NPR/PBS [!!!!] screening in L.A. and some guy stands up and goes, 'Thank you for making the first pro-legalization movie.' Then the other night, Commissioner Safir came to a screening and said he thought it was the most accurate representation of law enforcement he'd seen in a long time. And I have, you know, stoner friends who are going, like, 'Dude, yeah, great . . . '"
Nobody could possibly accuse Soderbergh of coming off like he had answers. But one might have hoped that he would have had a more open-eyed view of the cops in the United States, who appear in the film to be the Mexican police's only reliable ally.
Since Soderbergh is based in Los Angeles, one can only conclude that he has not been reading a newspaper for the past few years. Otherwise, he would have felt the need to introduce a little bit of reality into his script, based on the gargantuan Ramparts Division scandal.
It turns out that over the past decade or so, the LAPD anti-drug division has been deeply involved in the cocaine trade itself. Ex-cop, now serving a long prison sentence, Rafael Perez was accused of murdering, dealers during a botched drug deal in the mid-1990s. His ex-girl friend claims that the bodies of those victims and that of another woman allegedly killed by Perez's partner David Mack were buried in Mexico in hopes that, if they were discovered, they would be presumed to be victims of the region's drug wars. While some investigators claim that this accusation was false, there is no doubt that Perez and other officers have been found guilty of stealing drugs from the evidence room of their department and re-selling them on the street. In 1999 Perez pleaded guilty to stealing eight pounds of cocaine in exchange for a lighter prison sentence. He also agreed to identify other allegedly corrupt officers. Now this would have made for a more interesting film, since it is a far more accurate representation of how urban police departments behave--or misbehave.
Furthermore, if Soderbergh had been more informed about the relationship between the USA and Mexico, he would have not been so eager to put white hats on all the American officials, especially in light of the revelations made by Thomas A. Constantine, the top drug-enforcement official who resigned last year.
In an interview with the NY Times on November 26, 1999, Constantine states regarding the Mexican drug trade "I watched that situation for five and a half years, and every year it became worse. We were not adequately protecting the citizens of the United States from these organized-crime figures."
"Every time we had a major case involving a criminal organization from Mexico operating in the United States, there was a significant allegation of corruption involving the Mexican Attorney General's office, a Mexican state police force, the highway police," he said.
However, the Clinton administration chose not to confront the Mexican government, since American concerns about Mexico's corruption and drug-trafficking problems were secondary to trade and other economic interests.
"The idea was, if you said those things publicly, if you release documents, you will just aggravate the situation," he said. "My concern was that we had kids in this country dropping like flies. Maybe that was parochial, but I felt like I was the only person there who felt like that."
Even after Constantine's counterpart in Mexico was found in 1997 to have been colluding with the country's biggest cocaine trafficker, serious discussion of the issue within the Clinton administration was minimal, even negligible, he said. The exception was the annual debate over whether to certify the anti-drug efforts of Mexico and other nations that produce or ship illegal drugs.
Constantine told the NY Times, "Everyone would say, 'Your facts are correct, but there are bigger policy issues involved.' "