The 2000s was the decade of hyperlink cinema; this is not the decade this technique was invented and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of it, but as a pop culture trend, I think it has pretty much run its course. In case you’re wondering, “hyperlink cinema” refers to films containing multiple storylines about separate characters who never meet but whose lives affect each other or have something in common. Among others, popular hyperlink films include “Syriana,” “Crash,” “Babel,” and “21 Grams.” You can see from that list that the technique was seen as a novel way to approach overly sober subject matter like racism, war, and even philosophical questions like destiny and free will. And, as with any technique, it wasn’t foolproof; some of those movies were excellent, but quite a few hyperlink dramas are pretty bad. But hands down and without a doubt, the best use of the technique was in Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” a nuanced, thoughtful, but also thrilling and suspenseful look at the War on Drugs.
Soderbergh’s first smart move was in putting together a crackerjack cast, and in knowing who to cast; he populates the screen with actors who know how to communicate a lot without saying much. The result is efficiently told stories, and a movie that ought to feel overstuffed and overlong instead feels like it could go on another two hours, following these characters and their stories around another bend.
Let’s walk down the supply line, starting in Tijuana, where Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican cop who finds himself in the employment of General Salazar, who is trying to take out the Tijuana cartel, but mostly so that he can move into their territory. The Tijuana cartel does their stateside business with the husband of Catherine Zeta Jones , who discovers – perhaps to her surprise as much as anybody else’s, that how it is that her husband actually brings home seven figures a year. When he is arrested, thugs from the cartel threaten her family, and she is caught between the powerful hand of the DEA and the even more powerful cartel. She dives into the underworld, but it’s not clear whether it’s her family or her lifestyle that she’s trying to protect; I think the ambiguity’s there on purpose. Don Cheadle and Luis Ruiz are the DEA officers assigned to watch her house; somehow they also have time to take into custody and guard a mid-level drug dealer, played by Miguel Ferrer, who is set to testify against Zeta Jones’ husband. This storyline isn’t strong; its outcome feels inevitable. We skip a step in the supply line – there are no street dealer storylines, perhaps because there have been enough of those in the movies – and meet Erika Christensen, a 17 year old private school National Merit Scholar finalist/thespian/vice president of her class who is also addicted to crack. Turns out her dad played by Michael Douglas, is the new head guru in the War on Drugs, and regular schedules “face time” with the President — and General Salazar in Mexico, bringing us full circle.
The Douglas/Christensen storyline is the trickiest one; it ought to feel like it’s overreaching and a little too ironic, waving its arms to convince us that rich kids and bad parents are really at the root of the drug problem. But Soderbergh handles the material carefully, and really, it’s the most compelling storylineto me; perhaps because these two are the characters that undergo the most transformation. Douglas decides he needs to get out from behind his desk and actually spend some time on the frontline of the drug trade, and ends up searching aimlessly through the bad parts of town for his own daughter.
Because “Traffic” is so committed to approaching his subject matter from multiple angles, it can feel overwhelming at times. “The regulation of illegal substances in this country is a big, expensive, complicated issue; as a character on “The Wire” said, you’re not battling a flesh-and-blood enemy; you’re going toe to toe with a force of nature. “Traffic” makes two points very effectively: first, that nobody — not the dealers, the smugglers, the cops, the drug lords or the users – are who you’d expect them to be, and second that the War on Drugs may not be winnable at all. These points make it an important movie. But “Traffic” it leaves it up to you to decide if it’s a war worth fighting anyway. And that’s what makes it a great movie.