Could the hypodermic needle be the most overused prop in American movies since that other warm gun, the pistol? How often in recent years have we encountered the plastic barrel, the rubber plunger, the metal tip? It's making Harvey Keitel's eyes roll back into his head in Bad Lieutenant. It's sending Denis Leary into the poppy fields of the hereafter in Jesus' Son. It's turning Jared Leto's arm a bruised shade of purple, then taking the goddamn thing straight off in Requiem for a Dream. In conventional Hollywood stories, the junk-filled hypo is a symbol of hedonism carried past the point of pleasure, a mile marker on a character's road to certain ruin. It brings the audience's hands over its eyes as surely as a running chainsaw next to a carotid artery. That most humble of medical implements, in other words, has become a cliché.
So it's worth examining the first appearance of the needle in Steven Soderbergh's survey of the drug industry, Traffic, and the way the scene fulfills the audience's fix for abuse parables while taking us on another trip altogether. The user here is a rich white teen (Erika Christensen), a basehead taking her first injection from a dark-skinned dealer in an abandoned tenement. She's undressed and supine on a mattress, sliding toward prostitution with zonked-out ease. He's shirtless and muscular and fairly glistening, holding her pale ankle gently in an elevated position. It is the scene that suburban mothers have long wielded against reckless daughters who miss their curfews--the worst-case scenario that follows a runaway's flight to the bus station. Soderbergh, the nonconformist behind the seminal indie sex, lies, and videotape and the anti-conventional Schizopolis, is working with well-worn material.
Except that in this version, there is this bird chirping outside the window--from the sound of it, a robin--and a little kid making his voice heard from the street below in cheery squeals. The moment refuses to portend what it should: a girl's descent into self-abasing addiction. What's going on in this room is, in some odd sense, no more important than the child squawking to his mother, or the bird chirping brightly. Life is being lived on the mattress, and also on the street outside, and around the corner, and a few blocks away, and in the city beyond.
Would our understanding of this scene shift if we knew that her father, played by Michael Douglas (and his righteous jowls), is trawling the soiled blocks of Cincinnati in an American sedan looking for his lost baby girl? Would the meaning of the moment change if we added the fact that he's the nation's newly appointed drug czar, a politically connected judge trying to bust the high-profile Obregon Brothers cocaine cartel in Mexico, at the same time as federal agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman) prosecute an upper-echelon importer (Steven Bauer) in La Jolla? And that the importer's brassy wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), newly aware of the secret of her family's success, is striving to bail out the business through some hard-nosed executive decisions?
Maybe not. One suspects our acolyte addict in that hotel room doesn't really care where her drugs have come from so much as where they're going that minute. Which is not altogether different from the experience of watching the film. Traffic has been compared to Robert Altman's Nashville for the size of its cast--it has some 110 speaking parts--and the sprawling structure of its storytelling. But the better comparison might be to the works of Sergei Eisenstein, films where the protagonist is an abstracted notion of revolution, possessing the body of a given character, then jumping like a ghost to the next--say, from Mincing Czarist Devil to Weeping Babushka No. 3.
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, adapting a scenario developed in a ten-year-old BBC series titled Traffik, follows the same logic in this issue drama, and falls back on the same broad dramatic gestures. Granted, he appears less bound to a particular ideology in the course of filling the screen with astute observations about the nation's military metaphor against drugs. A handful of truths about this illegal trade emerge over the course of the film, and it's easy enough to list them here: Demand is boundless and will not be curbed; supply is limitless and cannot be stopped; the dealers are resourceful and ruthless; the money is corrupting. Mexico's government is part of the problem, abetting criminal syndicates at the highest levels of power. The United States government is hypocritical, knowingly conducting a policy with unacceptable collateral damage for negligible gain.
A day trip to Oak Park Heights would almost certainly turn up a host of individuals who could explain the situation at least as well (and who have nothing but time to do it). A visit to your local police precinct, or the emergency room, or the nearest 12-step meeting would serve just as well. Even your average politician understands the real complexity--and intransigence--of the so-called drug problem. In fact, a few Washington players--senators Barbara Boxer, Don Nickles, and Orrin Hatch, among others--appear in Traffic cameos, counseling the new drug czar about how his office may best succeed.
Now, Orrin Hatch is not known for going one toke over the line when staking out positions on law and order. No, Traffic, for all its considerable merits, does not deliver a politically challenging message. (To picture this possibility, one need only imagine a feature version of Gary Webb's Dark Alliance, a history of CIA-backed crack dealing in 1980s Los Angeles.)
Instead, the high for viewers comes from the craft, a list of a hundred apt creative choices that make this an extraordinary picture. Here's a very short list of them. Observe the slight waddle in drug agent Benicio Del Toro's swagger, and the lacuna of doubt that envelops his eyes as his position in the Mexican police force becomes morally untenable. Follow the hide-and-seek movement of Soderbergh's handheld camera, camping out behind the couch in the middle of a showdown between our teen user and her parents--the lens's vantage point proving as elusive as the truth in this triangle of tasteful furniture and polite lies. Absorb the tinted film stocks (reminiscent of those in Soderbergh's The Underneath) that suggest the ethical shadow cast by the drug business. Note the pop-gun tenor of the automatic weapons in the movie's only proper gunfight, which strips these ordinary instruments of their banal mystique. Listen to the lisp of Luis Guzman.