Up in the Air

Flying cross-country after a photo-op with the border patrol, newly appointed U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield tries to rouse his troops. Thrusting out a dimpled chin as only Michael Douglas can, Wakefield dares them to be creative. "I want everyone thinking out of the box for the next few minutes," he barks in the most telling scene in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. "The dam is open for new ideas."

Soderbergh's camera coldly eyes the lavishly appointed cabin. One after another, the lawyers, military officials, and policy wonks on the drug chief's staff throw back only blank stares. Even 30,000 feet above a narrowed political landscape, they have nothing new to say about the perennial problem of drugs.

Ambitious and panoramic, yet as gripping as a crime thriller, Traffic could have been the mass-market film to trigger a bold discussion about the failures of U.S. drug policy. The impulse to muckrake seems to have fueled the project. Coming off the successes of Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh had the clout to make an issues-oriented drama in a Hollywood culture deathly afraid of issues. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, whose detailed script is loosely based on a 1980s British television miniseries, has a sharp eye for bureaucratic bungling and shady dealings. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter lent his expertise. There's plenty of intrigue and excitement in the film's two-and-a-half-hour running time, which flies by.

But in the end, Traffic shows us no more than what we already knew: The war on drugs is a futile mess. The screenplay announces that cartels outspend the law enforcement officials trying to stop them. Four in 10 kids try recreational drugs by high school, yet treatment isn't even an option on the policy makers' table. To its credit, Traffic tries to make its case dramatically, not just by the numbers. Snazzily shot and edited but lacking in intellectual toughness, the film seems far more adventurous than it is. Instead of riling us up, pointing fingers, or saying the unsayable about decriminalization or even legalization, Traffic merely reduces complex dilemmas to repetitive stock stories.

Three intersecting tales make up the narrative. As Wakefield, a conservative Ohio judge brought in to shake up Washington, Douglas slowly learns the political ropes, soaking up conflicting advice at Georgetown cocktail parties. Back in the all-American safety of midwestern suburbia, the judge's angelic daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen), a prep school standout who shouldn't have a care in the world, slides from casual pot smoking to freebasing cocaine, and worse.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, the immaculately groomed world of pregnant society wife Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is turned inside out when her husband Carlos (Steven Bauer) is arrested for dealing. Helena knows nothing about the true nature of Carlos's business. A pair of determined federal agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) have gotten the goods on Carlos by busting his flunky, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). The agents need to keep Ruiz alive long enough to testify against Carlos, whose dirty hands are wiped clean by the opportunistic lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid). If Carlos himself can be turned, then the truly powerful Mexican cartel dealers may be next.

At the center of the third story is Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), a good Tijuana cop working both sides of the border. In the film's gripping opening scenes, Javier and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) score a hefty drug bust in the desolate Mexican desert, only to find the loot whisked away by an army general, Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), who directs drug interdiction efforts on the Mexican side. Like Douglas's misguided judge and Zeta-Jones's oblivious wife, Del Toro's cop learns the hard way how hard it is to tell the good guys from the bad in this murky battle. The Mexicans routinely resort to torture to get information on smuggling operations. And Salazar is revealed to be working on behalf of one drug cartel as he comes down hard on its rival.

Soderbergh orchestrates the drama with documentary precision, even shooting improvised scenes with the real border patrol. But the film's showy stylistics can be distracting. Returning to tricks he unveiled in the 1995 neo-noir The Underneath, the director uses filters to cast the Mexican scenes in an acrid yellow, the D.C. and Ohio moments in a clinical blue chill.

Even more disconcerting are the performances of the big-name stars. Most of the film's enormous cast is superb, especially Del Toro (acting largely in Spanish), Ferrer, and Clifton Collins, Jr., who is riveting in the small part of a flamboyant hit man. But Douglas, in sharp contrast to the shaggy likability he showed in Wonder Boys, is a high-tension wire here. When his character discovers how little he knows about his daughter, we're meant to sympathize with a parent torn between work and home. But the script calls on Douglas to turn street vigilante, plowing into the lower depths to find the once-virginal Caroline now selling her body for the next high. The actor's clenched performance--as familiar as the plotline--is off-putting. Zeta-Jones wins no sympathy, either. After Helena's first quivering worries about her fate, she flicks on the steely resolve and determines to eliminate whatever obstacles she must to remain comfortable. It's all too sudden and too close to the actress's own raw ambition, so amply detailed in Vanity Fair and a hundred other magazine cover stories, to move or even shock us.

The film scrupulously wants to demonstrate that buying, selling, and using are not just the province of the amoral, the poor, or the black and brown. Indeed, the script's most trenchant moments cut to the heart of the drug culture: the common wish to escape the everyday, a wish that gets commodified into a multibillion-dollar industry. Every time a character downs a scotch on the rocks--and it's often--the sound seems amplified to emphasize the clink of ice against glass. It's the sound of self-medication; no better, the film says, but more legal than the bubbling of a bong hit. In one charged exchange, the judge's wife (Amy Irving) accuses him of outright hypocrisy when he tries to distinguish between her youthful forays with drugs and their daughter's downward spiral. "Can we take away the quotes around 'experimented' and call it what it was?" she implores.

In dialogue like this, Traffic plays psychologist to an America bedeviled by its own mixed feelings. Zero-tolerance policies may put small-time users behind bars, but they have little bearing on the powerful promise of transcendence that drugs continue to provide. Visually, the film brings the point home when Caroline, still wearing her private-school uniform, freebases for the first time. The film pauses for a moment after she sucks down the smoke, letting us see her eyes nearly roll back in her head and a single joyful, overwhelmed tear run down her cheek. Even after she graphically suffers the worst, the schoolgirl still can't fully repudiate the desire that led to such a terrible fall.

Mexico's torment--either falling in line with American law enforcement or cashing in on the drug bounty--is embodied in the character of Javier Rodriguez. Thanks to Del Toro's anguished performance, this strand in Traffic also captures the tone of moral confusion the film meant to achieve. Yet wrapping up its thriller plotlines, Traffic often careens into foolishness. To confront us truly with the bleak absurdity of our situation, the film needed a pinch of Oliver Stone, or at least the anti-establishment irreverence of Three Kings, David O. Russell's (mostly) shrewd 1999 Gulf War drama. Instead, Traffic leaves us like Justice Wakefield's staff, up in the air, staring and waiting for answers.

Speed--not the drug but the motion--is the high of choice for Chuck Noland, the efficiency expert played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away. A modern man in perpetual overdrive, Chuck has the perfect job: He's a corporate honcho at Federal Express, bringing the gospel of getting it there fast to the hinterlands. Cast Away opens brilliantly, with Chuck in Moscow, delivering a Vince Lombardi-style speech--"Time rules over us without mercy"--to Russian workers still getting the hang of the American way. The easy warmth Hanks brings to every role renders Chuck tolerable; we like the guy, but we can also understand why, back in Memphis, his longtime girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), won't commit to marrying a man who wears a pager to bed.

Called away on business one Christmas Eve, Chuck hurriedly exchanges gifts with Kelly on the airport tarmac, as a waiting FedEx jet rumbles in the background. Nowhere does Chuck feel more at home than in the sky. "I'll be back in a minute," he assures her with a jaunty wave. One minute he's absentmindedly playing with his bandaged thumb inside the cabin; the next, the plane is battered by a storm of biblical proportions and plummets into the South Seas.

Miraculously, Chuck washes up on the shore of a deserted tropical island, his woolly winter sweater still clinging to his battered body. And then--even more miraculously for a Hollywood film--stillness and silence. For the next hour, with no music and barely any dialogue, Cast Away watches as the chastened businessman learns all over how to survive. From the stray FedEx boxes that wash up on shore, he finds his tools. Ice-skate blades make an ax; a skirt makes a net for fishing. For companionship, he paints a face on a volleyball stained with his own blood, names it Wilson (after the manufacturer), and talks out loud to the totem.

Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., trust us as viewers to slow down and watch and reflect, to marvel at Chuck's ingenuity and to wonder how we would handle the same circumstances. Cast Away has been celebrated for its risky shooting schedule, which allowed Hanks a year to look suitably stranded by losing weight and growing out his hair and beard. Yet when a screen cue tells us that four years have passed and Hanks appears, lithe in a loincloth, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, the human scale turns superhuman and hokey. Chuck dares to challenge nature once again, cobbling together a seaworthy raft out of logs and the shell of a portable toilet that thumps onto shore. Composer Alan Silvestri's schlocky music cues every reaction.

The character's dazed reentry into society, when it inevitably comes, is handled with bittersweet restraint. Yet by then, the movie had lost me--a real shame, considering the rare and rich spell it had woven for an hour and a half. Well after Chuck does, Cast Away comes crashing down to earth. It never takes flight again. ¤