Coming on like he had something to prove, Steven Soderbergh managed to release not one but two world-beating films this year. Erin Brockovich was pretty good, an extremely well-directed movie of the week with a delightful-for-a-change Julia Roberts in the title role. But Traffic is a relatively deep and highly entertaining epic about the hypocrisies and futilities inherent in the American war on drugs. Transplanted to the U.S. and Mexico from a British TV miniseries set in the U.K. and Pakistan, Traffic dismantles U.S. drug policy with an acumen rarely seen in recent mainstream film. Distinguished by outstanding performances (particularly from Benicio del Toro and the great Don Cheadle) and superior storytelling strategy, the whole project is dragged down somewhat by contriving to make Drug Czar Michael Douglas’s daughter a goggle-eyed dope fiend and by Soderbergh’s overly stylized cinematographic strategy. Quibbles aside, the rest of the picture is an exciting message movie that proves Hollywood can still make exciting message movies. So bring ’em on, folks.
Filmmaking itself is a bit of a game. Directors, actors, screenwriters, and editors play it with their audiences all the time. You use diversionary tactics, you pluck at heartstrings, you appeal to the emotion, the intellect, and the libido of your audience. When the movie is complete, the studio marketing department plays the game, as well. The object of the game is to get butts in theater seats. On a slightly more high-flown level, the object is to engage, stimulate, and please your audience to the extent that they feel gratified by the experience — and tell their friends about the little game you’re playing so that they can buy tickets, too. And the filmmakers find out whether they’ve won when the box office receipts start coming in.