The Reel Drug War

Article excerpt

As busy as he is these days, George W. Bush should take time out to see Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's new movie about the war on drugs. For, in coming days, Bush must name a new drug czar, and seeing this movie could--and should--affect his choice. Traffic contains the usual disclaimer about its characters bearing no resemblance to real individuals, living or dead, but it is in fact a thinly veiled attack on the drug policy of the Clinton Administration and its outgoing drug czar, Barry McCaffrey. (As he prepares to leave office, Bill Clinton has suddenly become a drug reformer, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and the overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders. Where was he when we needed him?) In the movie, the drug czar, like McCaffrey, is a military man, and as in Washington, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been taken over by the military and law enforcement. And as in real life, the White House is preoccupied with stopping the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States.

In Traffic, Soderbergh dramatizes the real-life futility of that undertaking. Having written about the drug issue for years, I expected the movie to take many Hollywood-driven liberties with the facts. At points, the movie does lapse into melodrama; overall, though, it depicts US counternarcotics efforts with dead-on accuracy. In making the film, Soderbergh gained the cooperation of the US Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. When a Customs official complained about aspects of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite part of it. The DEA felt so comfortable with the director that it allowed him to shoot a scene inside the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas--the first time a film crew was ever allowed inside the surveillance complex.

Often, access leads to co-optation, but not in Soderbergh's case. On the contrary, the input from law enforcement, by increasing the movie's verisimilitude, has added to the force of its indictment. One drug agent in the movie acknowledges that the traffickers have access to telecommunications devices far more sophisticated than anything the DEA has. A Customs officer concedes that for every drug shipment that gets seized, several others get through. A trafficker in a witness-protection program chides a DEA agent about the hopelessness of his effort to bring down a smuggling ring--even if he succeeds, others will quickly fill the gap.

Soderbergh's main vehicle for getting his message across is Robert Wakefield, a tough-on-crime state Supreme Court judge in Cincinnati (played by Michael Douglas). After being selected to become the next drug czar, Wakefield prepares for the job by going out into the field. At every stop, he is confronted by evidence of the drug war's failure. On a plane ride back from the border, the judge--surrounded by military officers--asks for new ideas in fighting the war. He is met by total silence.

What finally pushes Wakefield over the edge is his own 16-year-old daughter's descent into cocaine addiction--a subplot that's one of the movie's main weaknesses. Within a matter of days, the teenager goes from perky straight-A student to freebasing zombie who sells her body for drugs. …