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Heroes of the Zeroes: Traffic

by on November 3, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

Rated R

An anthological, anthropological look at North America’s cocaine trade, “Traffic” remains one of the Zeroes’ preeminent epics — despite policy-cinema’s obvious switch to terrorism after 9/11.

Stephen Mirrione engrossingly edited Steven Soderbergh’s film into gritty rhythms. Stephen Gaghan’s script boasted tight social theses tied into unforgettable exchanges (the “two-letters” scene). Benicio del Toro’s Spanish-language turn as a Mexican cop caught between warring cartels established a coarse bedrock of bittersweet humanity.

All four earned Oscars — perhaps ersatz endorsement of “Traffic” as 2000’s true Best Picture. (Academy rules disqualified Soderbergh’s pseudonymous cinematography — an icy-hot spectrum of detached blues and heatstroke browns.)

Dovetailing with del Toro’s story, a new U.S. drug czar’s (Michael Douglas) daughter (Erika Christensen) falls prey to addiction, DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) investigate a cocaine-distribution kingpin, and that kingpin’s pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) goes from arm candy to active predator.

“Traffic” leaps into growing gorges between profit and principle and, from enforcement’s perspective, questions the sanity of ramming heads into walls built of cocaine bricks.

Cheadle and Guzman’s cop jive masks uncertainty at guarding a front line shifting from due process into chaotic bloodletting (invoked in a wrenchingly suspenseful parking-lot scene).

And Douglas soulfully expresses how his circumstances’ futility and hypocrisy erode him — a father with failings spun into resume footnotes and a politician whose numbed climactic rhetoric inverts Douglas’s confident “American President” monologue.

Though coolly composed, “Traffic” scathingly indicts opposing, but equally ineffective, drug-war tactics of bureaucracy and brutality, while acknowledging there’s no easy answer.