I’ve analyzed “Traffic,” on many different occasions, in many different ways over the years. I’ve looked at it directorial, the way the film is shot almost documentary-looking at times, while others seeming to exist in a hyper-real film world of corruption; I've looked at the cinematography (Which Soderbergh also did on top of directing, under a pseudonym) the fascinating choices that Soderbergh made to give each narrative strain and location a different lighting tint, blue for the cold Ohio and Washington upper-class scenes, Sun-yellow for the scenes in Mexico, and then, no tint for the San Diego scenes; I’ve even done a shot-by-shot analysis of the film to analyze it’s masterful editing style which uses hundreds of what mostly seems like unnoticeable jump cuts to elaborate on and quickly tell the story, (A jump cut by definition is usually blatantly noticeable, and usually a mistake, where there's scenes that are obvious cut to later in the scene and something's missing, but here, there's thousands of them and their intentional and ironically instead of taking us out of the movie, then strangely bring us back in, there's a reason the film was Stephen Mirrione an Editing Oscar) and several other ways, and yet, I don't think a lot of people, myself included at one point, ever really recognize how great a film "Traffic" is until much later, and upon several viewings.
The movie uses multiple narratives storylines that rarely, if ever meet, in which the film a different aspect on the so-called War on Drugs. One storyline involves 2 Mexican cops, Javier and Manolo (Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro and Jacob Vargas) who are hired by a General (Tomas Milian) to take out one of the major Tijuana Cartels, another involves the wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the American cops. Montel and Ray (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) who arrested her husband David, (Alec Roberts) for distributing drugs for another cartel after a witness, Eduardo (Miguel Ferrer) turns him in and goes into protective custory, and the third involves the U.S.’s newly appointed Drug Czar, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) who’s daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is determine to quickly spiraling into, well first cocaine addiction, and then later, pretty much anything and everything she can get her hands on. To distinguish the stories and the locations, Soderbergh, who won one of the film’s 4 Oscars for his directing, distinguishes the storylines and locations by using different cameras, stocks, and lighting for each storyline to help the audience keep track or the film’s unending, convoluted, and deeply analytical reality of drug trafficking. The movie doesn’t seem to have a message about it, or even a possible solution, or even a hopefulness to even come up with one. If anything, it believes treatment on an individual level is the only real way to combat drugs, but even then, it seems to make it clear that, the only way that's gonna happen is if eventually the person, him/herself is ready to go through that.
There are dozens of great speeches and theories throughout the film, some like Topher Grace’s speech about the ability of rising out of the ghetto through drugs are memorable, but so are the ones by smaller characters, like those of the security guard at the U.S./Mexican border saying he hopes he’s able to confiscate about 50% of the drugs that cross, but think that’s wishful thinking. Many of those characters weren't actors by the way, much of the footage shot during Douglas's so-called tours of the border are real places and he was given the information by real people who do those jobs. The movie even has cameos by five major U.S. Senators from both sides of the political isle discussing the issues with the warfare. In hindsight, these scenes actually remind of another movie that Soderbergh actually had a cameo performance in a few years later, "Waking Life", Richard Linklater's animated feature that's basically a dream within a dream, if you want to call it that, where we go from character-to-character seeing different ideas and perspective from several characters, only these are the several sides of the unwinnable drug war, just slices of what they have to deal with.
Despite the involvement of the government, it doesn’t support legalization either, I think because it wouldn’t get rid of the corruption within the trade, it would just make it more acceptable. I think what this film does is underlines, every aspect of the drug trade, and shows just what it encompasses, so we can come to a realization of just what it involves. Drugs, not a crime or a demon, but as a part of our economical, sociological, and psychological ecosystem. The movie is based on a famous miniseries, and the film later got remade into it's own television miniseries, and it's not that surprising considering, that we're still basically retelling the same truisms of the drug war through numerous other media, films and television, documentary and fiction especially. There's been and still is quite a few great movies about the drug trade and about drug addiction, hell, even the year "Traffic" came out, Darren Aronofksy made one of the very best ones with "Requiem for a Dream", that film's is probably the sexier pick for most people regarding the best films about drugs and the effects caused from it; it's especially the most stylized one, but I think that's why "Traffic" is the better one. While underneath it's surface there's more going on, on top, it's not slick or stylized, it barely resembles what we think of as a movie at all. It's just a dire, realistic, look-in at the drug war, not an in-depth or all-knowing one, just a look at how it works and the effects, both negative and positive that the trade causes and enables.