TRAFFIC – Blu-ray review

Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” (2000) is not my favorite of his films, but watching it again on the occasion of Criterion’s 2012 Blu-ray upgrade, I noticed one marvelous scene that had escaped my attention before.  A gaggle of spoiled, drug-addled teenagers lounge about in a plush space and share their observations about the world.  Not observations so much as revelations, really.  Each of them is convinced that he or she is the first person, like, ever to notice how totally phony the world is.  How come nobody ever figured this out before like us?  Gosh, we’re so smart.  Is there any coke left?

It’s a spot-on portrayal of teenage narcissism (and narcotic-fueled epiphanies) and a crystalline example of the myopia that plagues all of the film’s characters.  Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan, adapting the British mini-series “Traffik,” cast a wide net, creating a panoramic view of the war on drugs in North America that ranges from mid-level cops in Mexico, a pregnant mother in San Diego (Catherine Zeta-Jones), all the way to DC’s new drug czar-in-waiting Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) and several points in-between.  But the birds-eye continental perspective is strictly a sop to the audience, and each cut reminds us that the actual players in the drama can only see what’s right in front of them.

The point is driven home in a scene when Wakefield, eager to make a difference in his new job and fresh from spending time “on the front lines,” orders his staffers to “think out of the box.”  They fire out some ideas (“Unlimited money!”) but try as they might, they’re all trapped inside the bigger box in which they envision themselves as soldiers in the “war on drugs,” a grand-scale battle that pits them against not only the Mexican drug cartels and American dealers, but users on both sides of the border, some of whom live uncomfortably close to home, including Wakefield’s straight-A, class vice-president daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) whose casual drug use spirals rapidly out of control once her boyfriend introduces her to freebasing bliss.  By the end of the film, a disillusioned and overwhelmed Wakefield tries to tell a pool of reporters that this is “a war we have to win and a war that we can win,” but he doesn’t believe it enough to make it through a routine press conference.  This soldier beats a hasty retreat from the front lines to take care of business at home.

The film’s panoramic approach introduces many interesting narrative strands and characters (Benicio del Toro being one of the standouts as a Mexican cop navigating a corrupt landscape) but it also has its drawbacks.  Not content with showing the degree to which the disease has metastasized with blatant disregard for borders, Gaghan’s script forces the disparate parts together, and the film’s final third buckles under the weight of its multiple convergences, most awkwardly in a scene in which an assassin about to complete a job gets shot by someone else for a previous incident.  Catherine Zeta-Jones’ transformation from a housewife shocked to learn about her drug lord husband’s criminal activities to cartoon supervillain (“Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!”) is also a bit tough to swallow.

Whether you see “Traffic” as defeatist or simply a realistic depiction of a complex issue, it will leave you with plenty to chew on.  Sometimes that can be a back-handed compliment.  In this case, it’s an acknowledgment of the ambition and sheer gusto of this bursting-at-the-seams project.

The film is presented in “the director’s preferred aspect ratio” of 1.78:1.  It is exceedingly difficult to evaluate the accuracy of a transfer of this film.  Soderbergh uses some extreme color-coding to differentiate his locations.  Most Mexico scenes are shot in a desaturated sun-bleached tobacco brown, while many of the scenes in Washington and Ohio (those featuring Michael Douglas’ character) are bathed in the blue that results from shooting unfiltered daylight on tungsten-balanced film.  Other sequences are shot in naturalistic colors.

The blue sure as heck looks blue, so much so that you might think there was a transfer production error, but that’s how Soderbergh intended it.  It will even be a nostalgic throwback for some of us old film production students who didn’t believe our teachers who said we had to block out or filter the sunlight if we wanted to shoot properly with indoor film stock.  The Mexico scenes also look very washed-out as intended (one of the extras details the five step process they used) though they look a bit more “normalized” than on Criterion’s SD.  Whether this reflects any color manipulation in the 1080p transfer, I have no idea.   Image detail is very sharp throughout with the upgrade most evident, of course, in many close-ups on faces.

Audiences can listen either to the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks.  The film was recorded in mono so don’t expect much action on the surround channels or a booming dynamic mix.  But the spare audio design in some of the action scenes can be quite evocative, and the lossless audio helps you pick out some of the specific effects.  Cliff Martinez provides a low-key score that sounds good in this format.  Optional English subtitles support the mostly English audio.  Scenes with Spanish dialogue are presented with the same (non-optional) English subtitles that were included with the original theatrical prints.

The extras have been imported from Criterion’s original 2006 SD release of Traffic.

Was the middle part of the previous decade the golden age for audio commentaries?  It seems they’re becoming a less popular option these days, but Criterion didn’t chintz on this 2006 release, including three separate commentaries: one with Soderbergh and Gaghan, a cue-to-cue track with composer Cliff Martinez, and another commentary with producers Laura Bickford, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, and consultants Tim Golden and Craig Chretien.

The disc includes 27 minutes of Deleted Scenes (some with optional commentary by Soderbergh and Gaghan) and about 40 minutes of Additional Footage.  The “additional” scenes differ from the Deleted Scenes and are presented in raw, unedited form, some with Alternate Angles that can be accessed from your remote.  The beefiest one of these is a half hour of footage from the Cocktail Scene, glimpsed briefly in the film and including dialogue by real politicians such as Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, and others.

The “Demonstrations” section holds the best features on the disc.  “Film Processing” (6 min total) shows the five step process by which one of the Mexico scenes was transformed from its original camera negative look to the final desaturated look of the film.  In “Editing,” editor Stephen Mirrione (who won an Oscar for his work on “Traffic”) shows us his Avid screen as he works through several layers of picture and sound on multiple scenes (17 min. total).  In “Dialogue Editing,” sound editor Larry Blake talks nitty-gritty detail about the dialogue mixing, buffing and polishing necessary to make everything sound like it comes from a unified take (4 scenes, 13 min.)

We get to look at some Trading Cards of drug sniffing dogs, as well as a stream of Trailers and TV Spots (approx. 6 min. total).

The slim insert booklet includes a two page essay by Manohla Dargis.

Film Value:
“Traffic” netted four Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh (Best Picture went to the laughably inept “Gladiator”) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Gaghan.

Universal released “Traffic” on Blu-ray in 2010, and I don’t have that as a point of comparison.  Reading through several reviews, it doesn’t seem there’s a huge difference in audiovisual quality.  However, Criterion has some fantastic extras, especially for more technically minded viewers.  The Demonstrations about film processing and editing are excellent, and with three commentaries you certainly have your choice of collaborators to listen to.  This 1080p transfer is difficult to evaluate properly because Soderbergh makes such extreme use of color-coding, but what we’ve got certainly looks sharp and rich.  I don’t know if this is a must upgrade for owners of the Criterion SD, but if you’re deciding between the Universal and Criterion Blu-rays, the extras here make it the clear winner.