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Heavy Traffic

The advance word was right on the money. There is now, I realize, an excellent chance that two Steven Soderbergh films Erin Brockovich and Traffic will be nominated for Best Picture, and that they could shake out as the two hottest contenders. Except there's no question that Traffic is the better of the two. "Better" as in more ambitious, more artful, more accomplished. I think it's unquestionably the finest film I've seen this year, and I'm sure many critics will feel the same. This may translate into Best Picture honors among the critics groups, and hopefully a lot of people lining up to see it when it opens on December 22. But the Oscar prognosis, as usual, is a bit of a tangle.

by Jeffrey Wells

Traffic tells a story about different people and groups profiting from, trying to stop, or being victimized by the drug trade. But it's not one of those issue-driven dramas; it's more of a combination thriller and human tragedy. As you've probably heard, it constantly cross-cuts between three basic settings and well over 15 distinctly drawn characters. It also uses color tinting to suggest the flavor and emotional mood of two of the locales.

The settings are Mexico (Tijuana, Mexico City), from which drug cop Benicio del Toro negotiates his way through various loyalties on both sides of the trade; San Diego/La Jolla, which mainly focuses on a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman) first busting La Jolla drug kingpin (Steven Bauer) and then investigating his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones); and the Washington, D.C./suburban Cincinnati orbit of drug czar Michael Douglas and his bright but crack-addicted teenage daughter (Erika Christensen).

What's great here, I feel, is how all these stories and characters start to be seen as interwoven, with one situation feeding or bouncing off another. Traffic shows us the entire patchwork in all its hopelessly corrupted splendor, but not in a way that triggers despair or futility. Rather, you find yourself becoming more and more fascinated, and wondering how it'll all turn out. If nothing else, Traffic is extremely gripping storytelling. Nothing is resolved in a pat or simplistic way, and yet each story and character follows a satisfying dramatic arc.

Will Traffic do even half of the business that Brockovich did? Probably not. Douglas and one or two other characters aside, it's about some very gnarly people, and it pulls very few punches in showing us the particulars of their world. But in no way is it a downer. No film this masterful or riveting deserves to be painted with this brush.

I'm sure that the just-entertain-us crowd will find its honesty and complexity a bit trying, and that the word may go out in some quarters that it's a difficult sit. And I suppose that some in the Academy will fall in line with this view. Opinions like these are not "wrong," but there is more to good cinema than making an audience feel good. Brockovich may be more of a crowd-pleaser, but Traffic has the pedigree.

Brockovich is social realism molded into a brisk, entertaining populist fable, and I give Soderbergh 90% of the credit for its success. Julia Roberts' colorful, career-best performance may have brought home the bacon, but Soderbergh delivered the economy and the class. Traffic doesn't use Brockovich's charm-school approach there's no cleavage, almost no humor, and not a whole lot of warmth. But in terms of portraying a social cancer and creating strong drama out of its impact on people's lives, it soars higher and achieves much more.

You may have heard or read iffy advance word emanating from early Traffic test screenings. It may be that the version I saw Monday is sharper or tighter than previous ones. There is one speed bump that comes along in Act Three involving Catherine Zeta-Jones' character, but for me it was minor and quickly forgotten. But all that talk about Douglas' character being tedious or underdrawn is crap; ditto any complaints about the opening reel being slow.

My idea of a downer is watching Charlie's Angels or the Get Carter remake movies that are torture to sit through. Traffic is anything but that. It weaves itself together in a way that is honest but subtle, and paints a societal portrait you not only believe but respect.

If the Academy hands the Oscar to Brockovich, fine. But they'll know deep down that they rewarded the lesser contender.

There are other alleged Best Picture contenders I haven't seen Finding Forrester, Cast Away, Chocolat, All the Pretty Horses so my sentiments are obviously qualified at this stage. But right now, having just seen it Monday afternoon, I'm adamant. Not Brockovich, not Gladiator, not Quills, and not quite Almost Famous Traffic, I believe, is the one that deserves the prize.

There's the possibility, of course, that the votes for both films could be split and neither will prevail; the same could happen with Soderbergh's entirely possible nominations for Best Director for both films. It'll be interesting to see how the promotion strategies of each film's distributor Universal and USA Films, respectively play out as the game progresses.