RW movie review

The Trouble with Traffic

Revolutionary Worker #1096, March 25, 2001, posted at

The movie Traffic has exploded center stage. People are rushing to see its gripping portrayal of the U.S. war on drugs. Nominated for five academy awards, the film is being upheld as a courageous criticism of government policy--and is being denounced by some (like former Drug Czar William Bennett) as a dangerous flirtation with retreat.

The film flashes rapidly back and forth between several story lines--from a grim battle over borderland smuggling in Tijuana to state-side busts of cocaine distribution rings in San Diego, from the bureaucratic command posts inside the Washington "beltway" to a story of teenage addiction in a wealthy section of the U.S. "heartland."

The fast-paced action and subtle acting draw you in and sweep you along. Everything about Traffic, from its gritty photography to the scope of its plot, seems to announce that behind these characters and their stories is the inside, hidden, true story of the war on drugs.

There is a sense of excitement that such a highly visible mainstream film has let the ugly cat out of the bag that "there is something terribly wrong with this war on drugs." And exactly because this movie is having such an important political impact --because it's shaping the assumptions and views of millions of people--it is important to speak the truth about what this film portrays.

Traffic is a trick movie. It draws you in. It opposes current government policy. But the world it shows, the picture of the drug trade and drug war it paints, is far from real.

After all, you have to suspect something when the gutsy central characters are all cops and U.S. government agents--two DEA agents, a Mexican state police, and the nominated Drug Czar of the federal government! We are offered these men as the frustrated-but-sincere soldiers of a failing cause.

And you have to suspect something when a film (billed as critical of the war on drugs) gets high-level cooperation from those waging that war: The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) allowed Soderbergh to shoot a film inside their high security El Paso Intelligence Center along the Texas/Mexico border. When a Customs Agency official complained about the script, Soderbergh reportedly let him rewrite it.

Michael Douglas, who plays the new Drug Czar in Traffic, told the Los Angeles Times that official cooperation in the film's production showed that "even the government was willing to say, 'Let's open this discussion up.'" The question is: Which discussion?

One revolutionary comrade, walking out of the movie, remarked, "Well, you gotta say, this movie really gave U.S. imperialism a 'get out of jail free' card."

Getting Real

Traffic is certainly right on one main point: After 15 years, the war on drugs has not stopped the massive global traffic in narcotics or the vast suffering caused by addiction.

But in Traffic, the sordid underbelly of the drug trade lies across the border in Mexico. A ruthless general is using the war on drugs to wipe out his competition in the trade. And Mexico is portrayed as a place so profoundly corrupt that the tireless U.S. agents across the border--who are supposedly outmanned, outspent, and outfoxed by the drug cartels--can do nothing but beat their heads against the wall in frustration.

But who is really corrupting who in the world? How, after all, did whole countries like Peru and Colombia get caught in the spell of drug production? Why do Colombia's farmers (who once produced wheat and vegetables for the people) now feel compelled to plant coca for the world market? Wasn't it the world capitalist market that imposed these pressures on them? Wasn't it the IMF and World Bank--who snared countries in debt and demanded that their farmers move to cash crops? When NAFTA floods Mexico with U.S.-produced corn, and ruins hundreds of thousands more small farmers, what will they be forced to plant to survive and who will be to blame?

If the massive drug profits disappeared tomorrow, whole countries would collapse--and with them networks of monopoly capitalist banks that feed on the people of the Third World. Who seriously believes that those calculations don't weigh heavily on the decisions of policy makers in Washington?

And what about the CIA in all this? When the CIA waged covert war in Laos during the 1960s, the U.S. was flooded with heroin from the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. When the CIA waged covert war in Central America during the 1980s, the private CIA air force flew hundreds of cocaine flights to finance its operations. The U.S. manipulates the drug trade as a matter of policy. And it repeatedly uses the "war on drugs" as a cover for counterinsurgency and intervention.

Who wants to sympathize with DEA narcs as they sit in vans listening to bugging devices and trading cop jokes? Meanwhile the DEA is providing the sprays that poison the wells and fields of Colombia--killing the peasants, especially the children. By their own reports, it has been standard for the DEA to "build a case" on major narcotics traffickers and then turn the evidence over to the CIA, so that these men can be blackmailed into acting as agents of the U.S. government--in various imperialist schemes of counterinsurgency.

And what about Michael Douglas' character in Traffic: Robert Wakefield, a tough, honest State Supreme Court judge in Ohio who becomes the new federal Drug Czar? He is portrayed as a decent man--whose main weaknesses are a neglect of his family, a taste for Scotch and a lot of naiveté about drugs and the world. In the real world, "drug czars" are men like Clinton's General Barry McCaffrey--a certified war criminal who massacred defenseless Iraqi soldiers after the cease-fire of the Gulf War. As head of the "war on drugs," McCaffrey was the pointman for the growing U.S. intervention in Colombia--the $1.2 billion Plan Colombia which is building up the Colombian military for a war against rebel forces. McCaffrey's forces are anything but out-gunned or under-funded--especially after millions were spent on state-of-the-art helicopters for his Colombia operations. McCaffrey is a cold blooded imperialist hitman--and his "war on drugs" has everything to do with maintaining and stabilizing U.S. control over the world.

War on the People

In Traffic, we see the horror of drug addiction through Wakefield's eyes as his daughter gets caught up in it. She gets busted but not jailed. She enters a treatment center, relapses and spirals downward into prostitution. And there is a sense that even the very most privileged youth in the U.S. see no future--that the alienation and hypocrisy of U.S. society from top to bottom are fueling the drug trade.

But nowhere in any of this would you know that there has been a real "war on the people" waged in the U.S.--where the prison population has doubled in a decade from 1 million to 2 million. There are nearly as many people locked up on drug charges today--around 458,000--as the entire U.S. prison population in 1980. In California, there are now 25 times more people locked up on drug charges than there were in 1980. It is a "war" that has been especially targeted at Black and Latino people--there were six times more African American youth in jail for drug offenses in 1996 than a decade earlier.

The U.S./Mexico border has been militarized--causing the deaths of hundreds of immigrants in the last few years. A whole generation of youth, especially in Black and Latino communities, are treated as criminals for the way they look and walk--they are profiled, jacked up, accused, demonized in the culture, and over and over, are locked away.

But Traffic has no heart for how the war on drugs has hammered and mistreated the communities of the oppressed. In Traffic, the Black community of Cincinnati is a place where privileged kids go for drugs and fathers go to rescue their daughters. The only two Black characters are a hard working DEA agent and a pimp/drug dealer whose seduction of a young white drug-addicted teenage woman seems designed to freak out middle class parents.

Searching for Answers

The climax of Traffic comes when Wakefield stands up in a White House press room to give his first policy statement. He has been stunned by his introductory tour of the drug war and by his daughter's hard fight with addiction. Standing there, in front of the White House press corps, the usual bureaucratic blah-blah-blah words just stick in Wakefield's mouth; he says "I can't do this anymore." He steps out into the fresh air and starts his search for a new approach, and a new answer.

We are offered the fantasy of a major political figure of this system who just decides to stand up and do the right thing, to break with the past, to say or seek the hard truths. And we have seen this onscreen before: in American President or West Wing. The makers of this movie deeply hope that somehow the system can reform itself, reverse its policies and heal the intense social suffering around us. But as long as U.S. imperialism has that "get out of jail free" card--the drugs will flow and the dog-eat-dog will rule.

If many eyes have been opened by Traffic, they need to keep looking for answers.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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