TRAFFIC: Hollywood tackles the drug war

By Tom Murlowski, TNC regional leader

Perhaps once in a decade Hollywood produces a movie that goes well beyond entertainment, a film that resonates with the public consciousness to such a degree that it may usher in a new level of social awareness and action.

In the 1970s The China Syndrome laid bare the callous disregard for safety within the nuclear power industry and was at least partly responsible for a complete overhaul of regulatory protocols within that industry. In the 80s the movie Philidelphia, starring Tom Hanks, helped people come to grips with the devastation of HIV/AIDS, thus spurring a sluggish federal government into action. This year marks the release of TRAFFIC, director Steven Soderbergh's epic tale of the utter futility of America's War on Drugs, a film which forecasts major change in drug policy. This film has already won numerous awards, and is a sure bet for a winner or two come 'Oscar night', and so one can easily imagine the public impact of a major celebrity decrying the drug war while accepting his or her award.

I first read about this film a little over a year ago in a copy of VARIETY, the entertainment industry's daily newsletter. In a single paragraph item about the movie having begun principal photography, the last line caught my eye: "Early buzz has it that those in Washington who wage the war on drugs will not be too happy with this film." I'm happy to say that TRAFFIC has met my expectations as a plea for compassion and common sense drug policies, obvious reasons for drug warriors to be unhappy with this movie.

TRAFFIC tells three intersecting stories, which essentially follow the supply-to-demand path of illegal drugs into America. In Tijuana, Mexico, an honest cop (Benicio Del Toro) realizes the impossibility of trying to stem the flow of cocaine across the border while black market billions in bribes and graft thoroughly corrupt every level of his government. In San Diego, California, a wealthy, spoiled society matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is shocked to discover, after seeing her house invaded by the DEA, that her affluent lifestyle has been purchased through her husband's massive drug trafficking. Finally, in Ohio and Washington, DC, the nation's newest drug czar (Michael Douglas), a tough-talking drug war bureaucrat, confronts the human reality and failure of American policy when he learns his own teenage daughter is addicted to heroin and crack cocaine.

The director wisely refrains from overtly preaching the pros or cons of the drug war, and instead opts for simply telling a good story, allowing us in the audience to figure out and judge the characters and their actions. The film loads viewers with rich ironies from the chain-smoking DEA agents who complain about the impossibility of quitting tobacco while chasing down 'dangerous addictive drugs' to the nation's hard line drug czar who needs a Scotch or three after work "just to unwind". The climax of the film occurs when the drug czar, after accepting the futility of trying to enforce laws against basic human appetites (including the drug hunger of his own daughter) asks a crowded and expectant press conference: "How can we wage war on our own families?" At an early screening of the film in Washington, DC, an ardent drug warrior from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley's office reportedly stomped out of the theater in disgust at this scene, scolding the director with "Shame on you" as he left.

Soderbergh is a Hollywood heavy hitter with such winners as Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight to his credit. His talents shine in every detail: the exceptional quality of the acting, compelling dialogue, the brilliant cinematography, even the sheer volume of story we absorb in two and a half hours. He imparts an immense amount of information about a very thorny and complicated subject, but never leaves us bored or unbelieving in the process. My only complaint, from experience as a November Coalition activist, is that the film left untold the major devastation wrought by the war on drugs: tens of thousands of non-violent citizens caged in US prisons for decades at a stretch, apart from loved ones.

But that's another major Hollywood film waiting to be produced for the final blow to the mass incarceration policies which have damaged all of us.

The November Coalition tackles TRAFFIC Moviegoers

No sooner had the movie hit than November Coalition volunteers were heading to the movies, not to watch it, but to pass out literature and talk to those waiting in line. Here are some comments, ideas that passed around those early days.

"One of the theaters where I went said that I could put a stack of tabloids at the ticket counter. What I wanted was for the person to give a tabloid to each person that bought a ticket to the movie, they wouldn't do that. Maybe a good looking sign saying "THE REAL TRAFFIC" would draw people. I think it works if the people think they are getting something that goes with the movie, like a perk, instead of a drug reform group". -Kelly Ali - Cleveland

"We are doing our literature handout at TRAFFIC tomorrow night. We'll be doing another handout with a date tba (with more notice) for folks in the SF Bay area who wishes to join. " - Patty - San Francisco

"I have been considering handing out the Razor Wire at the theaters showing TRAFFIC here in Seattle, and so I'm wondering if it's still possible to get copies of the latest Razor Wire. If so, I will take 100." -Jane - Seattle

"Five of us (Patty, Andy, Andrea, myself, and my husband Dan), met at 6:30pm at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, California on Sunday, February 25, to intercept the people on their way coming out of the 4pm showing of the movie, TRAFFIC, and we stayed in front of the theatre until all the people going to the later 7:30pm show got inside."

"We handed out a total of about 50 pairs of flyers (one DRCNet trifold and one trifold by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy), as well as many Razor Wires and November Coalition general information tabloids. Although not everyone we encountered reacted positively, invariably their inane behavior ended up disgracing themselves, and not our cause. Many of the people we met at the theater were interested; there are people who care and want to stay informed, making conscious efforts to learn about what's going on, and are eager to discover ways to make a difference. That is ultimately where our hope lies." -Caryn Graves, TNC volunteer San Francisco, California.