Traffic
"When I came out of the film, everyone was discussing how clever it was - but I got the feeling that no one really CARED."

I think that a film director is like an actor you should never see. In the same way an actor will try to manipulate by tone, expression and so on, a director manipulates by use of the camera, lighting, sound and editing. And as with good acting, an audience should be able to forget that the director is doing all this. Directing with the subtlety of Robert Duvall or Al Pacino's acting.

With a few notable exceptions (Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann) noticing the directorial style is a distraction, reminding audiences that they're watching a film and erecting a barrier which stops them from connecting emotionally.

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This is the case with Traffic. When I came out of the film, everyone was discussing how clever it was - but I got the feeling that no one really CARED.

So if our ideal director is Robert Duvall, then I hereby nominate Steven Sodebergh as Donald Sinden, hammily projecting up to the balcony.

The camera in Traffic is all over the place, attempting to give a documentary feel. Then there's the overlapping naturalistic dialogue. Yeah - this is REAL, man. I've no problem with that. But when he slaps ultra-vivid filters on the Mexican and Washington scenes, well - what IS the point of that exactly? Then there's lots of stylised images of whirling helicopter blades. And shots of People Not Saying Anything. And People Talking About Irrelevant Stuff. Yeah. That's not at all irritating in a TWO AND THREE QUARTER HOUR FILM.

The reason it particularly jarred, was because I remember Traffik being a compelling tv series and one with a sharp political message delivered in concise style. All Steven's directorial finessing does is detract from that. The only major plot change - replacing starving Pakistani farmers with Mexican cops further undermines the economic message of the original series. In the tv series, the West was reaping what it sowed - death by heroin in exchange for death due to third world debt. In the movie, the drug holocaust in American seems to be more safely blamed on those Mexicans who are all corrupt, don't you know.

And I think it was a mistake to move the emphasis from purely heroin to drugs in general. You really can't have an intelligent discussion about drugs if you're going to lump pot in with cocaine, and ecstacy in with heroin.

Now I'm not saying this is a terrible film. The script is very intelligent, and there's a great cast. Also, I'm glad Traffic got lots of Oscar nominations because it's an important subject and it's good that it gets attention. It's just that compared to the TV series, Traffic comes across as a major opportunity lost due to a director determined to take centre stage.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2001
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Multi-layered drama of drug trafficking in Mexico and the efforts of American undercover cops to curtail it.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

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