Traffic (2000 film)

Traffic (2000 film)

Infobox Film
name = Traffic

image_size =
caption = Theatrical poster
director = Steven Soderbergh
producer = Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
Laura Bickford
writer = Stephen Gaghan
narrator =
starring = Michael Douglas
Benicio del Toro
Don Cheadle
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Dennis Quaid
music = Cliff Martinez
cinematography = Steven Soderbergh
editing = Stephen Mirrione
distributor = USA Films
released = December 27, 2000 (USA, limited)
January 5, 2001 (USA, wide)
runtime = 147 minutes
country = United States
language = English
budget = $46,000,000
gross = $207,515,725
preceded_by =
followed_by =
website =
amg_id = 1:230156
imdb_id = 181865

"Traffic" is a 2000 crime drama film directed by Steven Soderbergh. It explores the intricacies of the illegal drug trade from a number of perspectives: a user, an enforcer, a politician and a trafficker, whose lives affect each other even though they do not meet. The film is an adaptation of the British Channel 4 television series "Traffik". In 2004, USA Network ran a miniseries — also called "Traffic" — based on the movie and the earlier television series.



"Traffic" could be considered in a category of films that critic Alissa Quart calls 'hyperlink movies', in which multiple stories take place, each affecting the other in ways that characters are unaware of, all the while using radically different aesthetic and cinematics techniques to define the "mise en scène" of each storyline.


The film begins in Mexico, where police officer Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Del Toro) and his partner, Manolo, stop a drug transport and arrest the couriers. Their arrest is interrupted by General Salazar (Milian), a high-ranking Mexican official. The general decides to hire Javier and instructs him to locate and apprehend Frankie Flowers (Collins, Jr.) — a notorious hit man for the Tijuana Obregón Drug Cartel.

Meanwhile, Robert Wakefield (Douglas), a conservative Ohio Judge, is appointed to be head of the President's Office of National Drug Control, taking the title of Drug Czar. Wakefield is warned by his predecessor and several influential politicians that the war on drugs is unwinnable. Unbeknownst to Wakefield, his honor student daughter, Caroline (Christensen) is using cocaine and falls victim to drug addiction when she is introduced to freebase cocaine by her boyfriend, Seth (Grace). She and Seth are arrested when another student at her high school overdoses on drugs and they try to dump him anonymously at a nearby hospital. Robert finds out that his wife Barbara (Irving) has known about their daughter's involvement with drugs for over six months.

In the third main story, which is set in San Diego, an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation — led by Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzmán), arrest Eduardo Ruiz (Ferrer), the high-stakes dealer posing as a fisherman. In the process, Ruiz is hospitalized and decides to risk the dangerous road to immunity by giving up his boss: drug lord Carlos Ayala (Bauer), the biggest distributor for the Óbregon brothers in the United States. Ayala is prosecuted by a tough prosecutor hand selected by Wakefield in an attempt to send a message to the Mexican drug organizations through a conviction against the drug lord.

Flowers is tortured and eventually gives Salazar the names of several important members of the Óbregon Drug Cartel, who are arrested in a large effort by police and army soldiers. Javier and Salazar's efforts start to cripple the Óbregon brothers cocaine outfit, but Javier soon discovers that Salazar is a pawn for the Juárez Cartel, the rival of the Óbregon brothers. The entire Mexican anti-drug campaign is a fraud, as Salazar is wiping out one cartel, not out of duty, but rather because he has aligned himself with another cartel for profit.

Wakefield realizes that his daughter is a drug addict and finds himself caught between his demanding new position and his worrisome family life. When he heads to Mexico, he is encouraged by the successful efforts of Salazar hurting the Óbregon brothers. When he returns to Ohio, Robert learns that his efforts to see Caroline rehabilitated have failed, and she escaped into the city where no one knows her location. Secretly, she's forced to prostitute herself and rob her parents to procure money for drugs.

As the trial against Carlos Ayala begins, Carlos' wife, Helena (Zeta-Jones) learns of her husband's true profession. With her husband facing life imprisonment and death threats against her only child, she decides to hire Flowers to assassinate Eduardo Ruiz. She knows that killing Ruiz will effectively end the trial "nolle prosequi".

Javier's partner, Manolo sells the information to the DEA, but is killed for his betrayal. Javier, who can no longer stomach working for Salazar, decides to cut a deal with the only non-corrupt organization he has access to — the Federal government of the United States and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In exchange for his testimony, Javier requests electricity in his neighborhood, so that kids can play baseball at night rather than be tempted by street gangs and crime. General Salazar's secrets are revealed to the public. He is arrested and tortured to death shortly after.

Wakefield begins a search for his daughter and drags along Seth. After being threatened and nearly killed by a drug dealer, he breaks into a seedy hotel room in Cincinnati and finds a semi-conscious Caroline prostituting herself to an older man. Wakefield returns to Washington, D.C., to give his prepared speech on a "10-point plan" to combat the war on drugs. In the middle of the speech, he falters, then tells the press that on a war on drugs is a war against many of our own family members, which he cannot endorse. He quits his job and heads home.

Flowers's assassination attempt on Ruiz fails, when he himself is assassinated for his betrayal by a sniper working for the Óbregon Cartel. Helena, knowing that Ruiz is soon to testify, then makes a deal with Juan Óbregon (Bratt), lord of the drug cartel, who forgives the debt of the Ayala family and murders Ruiz. Carlos Ayala is released, much to the discomfort of Montel Gordon, who lost his partner, Castro, when Frankie tried to assassinate Ruiz with a car bomb. Soon after, Montel bursts into the Ayala residence and illegally plants a microphone under one of the tables, before being kicked out.

Robert and Barbara begin to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings with their daughter, to support her and everyone else there. Javier takes the media to Mexico and explains what he can about the widespread corruption in the police force and army. The film concludes with him watching some Mexican children playing baseball at night, at their new stadium.

Cast and characters

* Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez: a Mexican Police Officer
* Jacob Vargas as Manolo Sanchez: Javier Rodriguez's Partner
* Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield: Head of the President's anti-drug campaign
* Amy Irving as Barbara Wakefield: Robert Wakefield's wife
* Erika Christensen as Caroline Wakefield: The Wakefields' teenage daughter
* Catherine Zeta-Jones as Helena Ayala: Carlos Ayala's wife
* Dennis Quaid as Arnie Metzger: Helen Ayala's lawyer and Carlos's partner
* Steven Bauer as Carlos Ayala: Obrégon brothers distributor
* Clifton Collins Jr. as Francisco Flores: Obrégon Cartel assassin
* Topher Grace as Seth Abrahams: Caroline Wakefield's boyfriend
* Don Cheadle as Montel Gordon: DEA Agent
* Luis Guzmán as Ray Castro: Montel Gordon's partner
* Miguel Ferrer as Eduardo Ruiz: Ayala distributor
* D. W. Moffett as| Jeff Sheridan: Assistant to Robert Wakefield
* Tomas Milian as General Arturo Salazar: Head of Mexican Drug Police
* Peter Riegert as Michael Adler: Carlos Ayala's Attorney
* Benjamin Bratt as Juan Obregón: Lord of Obregón Drug Cartel
* James Brolin as General Ralph Landry: Robert's predecessor

Relationship to factual events

Some aspects of the plotline are based on real-life events. The character General Arturo Salazar is closely modeled after disgraced Mexican drug czar General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who was secretly on the payroll of the Juarez Cartel. The Obregón Cartel is similarly modeled after the Tijuana Cartel.


Steven Soderbergh had been interested in making a film about the drug wars for some time but did not want to make one about addicts.cite news | last = Hope | first = Darrell | coauthors = | title = The "Traffic" Report with Steven Soderbergh | work = DGA Magazine | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = January 2001 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] Producer Laura Bickford got the rights to the United Kingdom mini-series "Traffik" and liked its structure. Soderbergh had seen it in 1990.cite news | last = Lemons | first = Stephen | coauthors = | title = Steven Soderbergh | work = | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 20, 2000 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] They started looking for a screenwriter and read a script by Stephen Gaghan entitled "Havoc" about upper-class white kids in Palisades High School doing drugs and involved with gangs.cite news | last =Divine | first = Christian | coauthors = | title = Pushing Words | work = Creative Screenwriting | pages = 57 | language = | publisher = | date = January/February 2001 | url = | accessdate = ] Soderbergh approached Gaghan to work on his film, however, he was already working for producer/director Ed Zwick. Bickford and Soderbergh approached Zwick who agreed to merge the two projects and come aboard as a producer.

"Traffic" was originally going to be made at 20th Century Fox but it was put into turnaround unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star. When the actor showed interest in the film this in turn renewed the studio's interest in it.cite news | last = Ascher-Walsh | first = Rebecca | coauthors = | title = Red Light, Green Light | work = Entertainment Weekly | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = February 15, 2000 | url =,,84997,00.html | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] Fox CEO Bill Mechanic championed the film but he left by the time the first draft was finished and this also caused it to go into turnaround.cite news | last = Kaufman | first = Anthony | coauthors = | title = INTERVIEW: Man of the Year, Steven Soderbergh "Traffic"s in Success | work = indieWIRE | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = January 3, 2001 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] Mechanic also wanted to make some changes to the script but Soderbergh disagreedcite news | last = Dargis | first = Manohla | coauthors = | title = Go! Go! Go! | work = L.A. Weekly | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 26, 2000 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] and decided to take the film to all other major studios who turned them all down because they were scared of a three-hour film about drugs, according to Gaghan. USA Films wanted to do it from the first time Soderbergh approached them. They provided the filmmakers with $46 million budget, a considerable increase from the $25 million that Fox offered.


Soderbergh had "conceptual discussions" with Gaghan while he was shooting "The Limey" in October 1998 and they finished the outline before he went off to shoot "Erin Brockovich". After Soderbergh was finished with that film, Gaghan had written a first draft in six weeks that was 165 pages long. After the film was greenlit, Soderbergh and Gaghan met two separate times for three days working all day reformatting the script. The draft they shot with had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities. The film shortens the storyline of the original mini-series, a major character arc, that of a farmer, is taken out, and the Pakistani plotline is replaced with one set in Mexico.


Harrison Ford was initially considered for the role of drug czar Judge Robert Wakefield in January 2000 but would have had to take a significant cut in his usual $20 million salary. Ford met with Soderbergh to flesh out the character and Gaghan agreed to rework the role, adding several scenes that ended up in the finished film. On February 20, Ford turned down the role and the filmmakers brought it back to Michael Douglas who had turned down an earlier draft. He liked Ford's changes and agreed to star which helped greenlight the project. Gaghan believes that Ford turned down the role because he wanted to "reconnect with his action fans".

The filmmakers sent out letter to many politicians, both Democrat and Republican. The ones that showed up, including U.S. Senator Harry Reid, playing himself, as do Senators Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley, Don Nickles, and Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, were filmed in a scene that was entirely improvised.


After Fox dropped the film and USA Films was interested, Soderbergh paid for Pre-Production with his own money. USA Films agreed to give him final cut on "Traffic" and when any Mexican characters spoke to each other, it would be in Spanish.cite news | last = Daly | first = Steve | coauthors = | title = Dope & Glory | work = Entertainment Weekly | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = March 2, 2001 | url =,,280028,00.html | accessdate = 2008-05-25 ] However, this meant that almost all of Benicio del Toro's dialogue would be subtitled. Once the studio realized this they suggested that his scenes be shot in both English and Spanish. Del Toro was worried that some other actor would be brought in and re-record his dialogue in English after working hard to master Mexican inflections and improve his Spanish vocabulary. Del Toro remembers, "Can you imagine? You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said, 'No way. Over my dead body.' Steven was like, 'Don't worry. It's not gonna happen.'" The director fought for subtitles for the Mexico scenes arguing that if the characters did not speak Spanish, the film would have no integrity and demonstrated what he described as the "impenetrability of another culture".

The filmmakers went to the DEA and U.S. Customs early on with the script and told them that they were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. The DEA and Customs pointed out inaccuracies in the script and gave them access but did not try to influence the content of the script. Soderbergh cites the influence of the films of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard and he spent a lot of time analyzing "The Battle of Algiers" and "Z", which, according to the director, had the feeling that the footage was caught and not staged. He was also inspired by Alan J. Pakula's film "All the President's Men" because he admired its ability to tackle serious issues while also being entertaining.cite news | last = Lyman | first = Rick | coauthors = | title = Follow the Muse: Inspiration to Balance Lofty and Light | work = New York Times | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = February 16, 2001 | url = | accessdate = ] In the opening credits of his film, Soderbergh tried to replicate the typeface from "All the President's Men" and also the placement on-screen – bottom left-hand corner. Analyzing this film helped the director deal with the large cast and working in many different locations for "Traffic".

Principal photography

Half of the first day's footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio bosses knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. The insurers made him agree that any further lensing mishaps resulting in additional shooting would come out of the director's own pocket. Soderbergh shot in cities on a 54-day schedule and came in $2 million under budget. The director operated the camera himself in an effort to "get as close to the movie as I can", and to eliminate the distance between the actors and himself. Soderbergh drew inspiration from the cinema verite style of Ken Loach's films, studying the framing of scenes, the distance of the camera to the actors, lens length, and the tightness of eyelines depending on the position of a character. Soderbergh remembers, "I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic". Most of the day was spent shooting because a lot of the film was shot with available light.

For the hand-held camera footage, Soderbergh used Millennium XLs that were smaller and lighter than previous cameras and allowed him to go anywhere with it. In order to tell the three stories apart, he adopted a distinctive look for each. For Robert Wakefield's story, Soderberg used tungsten film with no filter for a cold, monochrome blue feel. For Helena Ayala's story, Soderbergh used diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposing it for a warmer feel. For Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez's story, the director used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to produce a strobe-like sharp feel. Then, he took the entire film through an Ektachrome step which increased the contrast and grain significantly. He wanted to have different looks for each story because the audience had to keep track of many characters and absorb a lot of information and he did not want them to have to figure out which story they were watching.

Benicio del Toro had significant input into certain parts of the film. For example, he suggested a simpler, more concise way of depicting his character kidnapping Frankie Flowers that Soderbergh ended up using. The director cut out a scene where Robert Wakefield smokes crack after finding it in his daughter's bedroom close to actually shooting the scene. After rehearsing said scene with the actors, he felt that the character would not do it and after consulting with Gaghan, the screenwriter agreed.cite news | last =Divine | first = Christian | coauthors = | title = "Traffic" Jammin' | work = Creative Screenwriting | pages = 58 | language = | publisher = | date = January/February 2001 | url = | accessdate = ]


The first cut of "Traffic" ran three hours and ten minutes. Soderbergh cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. Early on, there was some concern that the film might get an NC-17 rating and he was prepared to release it with that rating but the Motion Pictures Association of America gave it an R.


"Traffic" was given a limited release on December 27, 2000 in four theaters where it grossed USD $184,725 on its opening weekend. It was given a wide release on January 5, 2001 in 1,510 theaters where it grossed $15.5 million on its opening weekend. The film would make $124.1 million in North America and $83.4 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $207.5 million, well above its estimated $48 million budget.cite news | last = | first = | coauthors = | title = "Traffic" | work = Box Office Mojo | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ]

In addition to strong box office receipts, "Traffic" was very well-received critically. It has a 92% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 86 metascore on Metacritic. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn't preach. It is so restrained that at one moment—the judge's final speech—I wanted one more sentence, making a point, but the movie lets us supply that thought for ourselves".cite news | last = Ebert | first = Roger | coauthors = | title = "Traffic" | work = Chicago Sun-Times | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = January 1, 2001 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ] Stephen Holden, in his review for the "New York Times", wrote, "Traffic" is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff".cite news | last = Holden | first = Stephen | coauthors = | title = Teeming Mural of a War Fought and Lost | work = New York Times | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 27, 2000 | url = | accessdate = 2008-09-05 ] In his review for the "New York Observer", Andrew Sarris wrote, "Traffic" marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he's going to do next. The promise of "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" has been fulfilled".cite news | last = Sarris | first = Andrew | coauthors = | title = Soderbergh, on Border Patrol, Dissects the Drug Economy | work = New York Observer | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 24, 2000 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ]

"Entertainment Weekly" gave the film an "A" rating and praised Benicio Del Toro's performance, calling it, "haunting in his understatement, becomes the film's quietly awakening moral center".cite news | last = Gleiberman | first = Owen | coauthors = | title = The High Drama | work = Entertainment Weekly | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = January 5, 2001 | url =,,279203,00.html | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ] Desson Howe, in his review for the "Washington Post", wrote, "Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade".cite news | last = Howe | first = Desson | coauthors = | title = Green Light for "Traffic" | work = Washington Post | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = January 5, 2001 | url = | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ] In his review for "Rolling Stone", Peter Travers wrote, " The hand-held camerawork – Soderbergh himself did the holding - provides a documentary feel that rivets attention".cite news | last = Travers | first = Peter | coauthors = | title = "Traffic" | work = Rolling Stone | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 18, 2001 | url = | accessdate = 2008-09-05 ] However, Richard Schickel, in his review for "Time", wrote, "there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another".cite news | last = Schickel | first = Richard | coauthors = | title = Caution: Gridlock Ahead | work = Time | pages = | language = | publisher = | date = December 31, 2000 | url =,9171,93286,00.html | accessdate = 2008-05-07 ]


The film won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, but did not win.

Benicio del Toro is one of only five actors to have won an Academy Award for a part spoken mainly in a foreign language (most of del Toro's dialogue is in Spanish). Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Roberto Benigni and Marion Cotillard are the other four.

At the Golden Globe Awards, "Traffic" won Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, and Best Screenplay.

The New York Film Critics Circle named "Traffic" as the Best Film of the Year and Soderbergh as Best Director.

See also

*Hyperlink cinema - the film style of using multiple inter-connected story lines.
*Mexican Drug War


External links

*imdb title|id=0181865|title=Traffic
*amg movie|id=1:230156|title=Traffic
*metacritic film|id=traffic|title=Traffic
*mojo title|id=traffic|title=Traffic
* [ Criterion Collection essay by Manohla Dargis]
* [ Criterion Collection essay by Larry Blake]

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