Traffic is an exposé on hard-core drug trafficking. That fact alone will rule it out as pleasant family viewing. It does not, however, glorify drug use. And that is a huge distinction in a movie-saturated culture that embraces such rabidly drug-friendly films as Next Friday, Half-Baked and Dude, Where's My Car? Setting aside his longstanding aversion to Hollywood sleaze, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch decided to make a cameo appearance in Traffic. Defending his decision, Hatch said, "I don’t see how they could have made it without violence and still accurately portray the drug culture—and how degrading it is. ... They told my staff the movie would be about how drugs destroy families, and I thought that would be worthwhile."So does the good Senator have a point? Yes. Traffic will positively impact millions of moviegoers who are already so familiar with vulgar and violent scenes that they’ll scarcely notice the film’s caveats. Desensitization aside, however, Traffic should be viewed as the equivalent of a moral flogging, not entertainment. The story is engaging. The acting impeccable. But there’s nothing "entertaining" about brutal violence, teenage prostitution and gritty depictions of drug abuse. After seeing the finished product, even Hatch was daunted by the lengths to which the filmmakers went to be "real." "I was shocked and dismayed at the gratuitous amount of violence and profanity," he said. "It was more than was necessary to reveal the devastation caused by drugs. I do not condone it. It detracts from its anti-drug message.”
In Traffic, Judge Robert Wakefield has just been appointed to America’s highest position in its war on drugs. He’s the new drug czar in the White House’s National Drug Control Policy Office. He’s bursting with great ideas. He’s brimming with grand plans. Then he discovers that his own daughter—16-year-old Caroline—is a junkie. Meanwhile, south of the border, Mexican State police officer Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez and his partner Manolo find themselves dragged into a fierce drug trafficking war in Tijuana. In San Diego, DEA officers fight their own battle (physical and legal) against a distribution kingpin. These stories never really merge, but they are tied together by an ugly network of illicit drugs.
positive elements: Director Steven Soderbergh has created a veritable anti-drug treatise. One can’t leave the theater with anything but a heavy heart, lamenting the destruction illegal drug use wreaks upon America, especially its children. Judge Wakefield stages a governmental, then a personal assault on drugs with the most honorable of intentions. Even better, he’s ultimately willing to put his daughter’s interests first, placing his status and position a distant second. After he and his wife have a fierce argument, he apologizes to her, and the two struggle together to rescue and support Caroline. Drug treatment centers are positively portrayed. Governmental corruption is never excused or praised.
nudity and sexual content: With drugs comes sex. Caroline and her prep school friend, Seth, get high on cocaine and have sex (the act is not shown, but Seth anticipates "taking a hit" together during climax). Later, in an excruciating scene, Caroline sells her body to a dealer for more drugs (their bodies are partially shown, but the sequence is more horrifying in its implications than in its explicitness). Characters trade sexual and homosexual jokes on a couple of occasions, and discuss masturbation. In Mexico, a cartel assassin is captured, stripped naked, tied to a chair and tortured. Caroline’s dealer is shown nude from the rear when their sex act gets interrupted by another "customer."
violent content: Machine gun battles produce blood and violent death on several occasions. A few men are also killed with pistols at point-blank range. In one gruesome scene, a sniper shoots a man in the chest. An execution-style murder has the killers forcing their victim to dig his own grave and stand next to it so he’ll fall into the hole after he’s shot. A man convulses and dies after eating poisoned food. A car bomb explodes, killing its occupant.
crude or profane language: The f-word punctuates much of the dialogue. Before the credits roll, there are close to 100 combined uses of the f- and s-word (some are in Spanish and subtitled at the bottom of the screen). A couple crude expressions are used to describe sex and masturbation. The Lord’s name is abused about 10 times.
drug and alcohol content: Repeated depictions of hard-core drug use. Free-basing. Snorting. Smoking. Injecting. Not once, however, are these activities glamorized or glorified, and negative repercussions are made abundantly clear. Caroline prostitutes herself to score more drugs. One of Caroline’s friends ODs. Wakefield frequently drinks hard liquor and wine to "take the edge off."
conclusion: Focusing narrowly on personal tragedy while also investigating widespread drug trafficking, Traffic takes on the modern drug culture with the vengeance of a she-lion fighting for her cubs. The result is sobering. That said, I can certainly empathize and understand why Soderbergh injected such liberal amounts of foul language, violence and drug use into this film. But that doesn’t make it right. Imaginative editing could have taken this R-rated indulgence and turned it into a strong morality tale that would have become mandatory viewing for every family in America. As it is, the raw images sure to be burned into young minds would compete fiercely with any life lessons learned. Too high a price for most families.