- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

LOS ANGELES Movie director Steven Soderbergh met with people from think tanks and drug control agencies in Washington when he was preparing his new topical thriller "Traffic."

"I came away first and foremost with a sense of despair. Nobody believed the current policies [on drugs] were working. It fascinated me that there wasn't an easy answer to the problem, and I wanted the movie to reflect that fact," Mr. Soderbergh says.

Screenings in Washington have persuaded him that his movie reaches the proper level of ambiguity. "We throw out lots of opinions," he says. "I think there's a hunger in the public to ask, 'What's going on?' in the area of drug policy. We showed the film to [the Drug Enforcement Administration], Customs, Justice, some lead men for [White House drug policy director] General [Barry] McCaffrey. They all seemed to like it.

"Then the following night, we showed it to this very lefty, public TV, [National Public Radio] crowd. Some guy stood up and said, 'Thank you for making a pro-legalization movie.' It's really weird. Everybody thinks the movie poses their point of view."

Elaborating on the response of his government consultants, Mr. Soderbergh explains during promotional interviews: "They thought we were very evenhanded. That's what impressed me about all these people who helped us. They never said, 'Try to get this in' or 'You can't say that.'

"Their attitude was, 'This movie is going to be made, one way or the other, and it would be better for us if it's accurate.' They wanted to be around when anything involving law enforcement was depicted, just to make sure it was procedurally correct. I was always receptive to that kind of guidance. These guys have information at their fingertips that you can't make up."

Mr. Soderbergh is convinced that "the 'drug war' metaphor is the wrong metaphor." In his opinion, "Everyone senses that, but how do you back up and say, 'OK, it's not helping to call it a war anymore. Let's call it a discussion.' How do you put that politically?

"We've put ourselves in a bind. We're spending more money, putting more people in jail, but apart from that, nothing has changed in 20 years."

"Traffic" derives in part from a British television series of the late 1980. Actors include Michael Douglas, cast as a drug czar who faces more or less instant disillusionment upon discovering that his overprivileged daughter is a precocious addict.

Mr. Douglas acknowledges that "there were areas of this material that hit close to home." One of his brothers and a grown son by his first marriage have entered drug rehabilitation programs. "My personal life and my family's life have been pretty well documented, and that scrutiny includes some drug-abuse issues," the actor says.

"So I identify with it. I try not to bring up my own son's … ways. The unfortunate thing is that if not for me, he would have the right every young individual has to work through this problem in privacy. Unfortunately, having a well-known father, he's been put out there publicly."

Mr. Douglas is asked if he has any hard-earned wisdom to share about measures aimed at treatment or prevention. "I think the picture touches on areas beyond the government emphasis, which has been education and incarceration," he says.

"Rehabilitation has to be part of the process. I supported Proposition 36 here in California, and I think more states may agree that it doesn't make sense to jail first- or second-time offenders for possession when it's clearly for their own consumption rather than for sale or implicated in the act of committing crimes. I think we need to think more hand-in-hand about alcohol and drug abuse. Prescription drugs, too. My character drinks socially. I'm at a Washington cocktail party where all these powers that be are slamming it back pretty hard."

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mr. Douglas' new wife and the mother of his infant son, Dylan, portrays the criminally resourceful wife of a jailed drug baron, one of four subplots contrived to interweave and intersect during the course of "Traffic."

Miss Zeta-Jones says the movie has complicated her perceptions of the drug problem. "I'd be the first to say that my thoughts were pretty black-and-white: 'Bad people sell drugs. Bad, sad people take them. Somewhere people are turning a blind eye to the problem.' I thought it happened way downtown, that it was a nasty problem that could never affect my life. Now, after seeing the movie, I can see it's happening all over."

The birth of Dylan gives her a more urgent perspective. "Even the optimist in me recognizes that 15 years down the road, my son could be a big target for this sort of thing. Famous mum, dad, grandpa. He might have to work even harder to make a name for himself," she says. "That can make you more vulnerable. It just terrifies me. I think the timing is absolutely right for this movie."

"Traffic" casts Benicio Del Toro and Don Cheadle as narcotics agents based in Tijuana and San Diego, respectively. Mr. Del Toro was able to approach the role of Tijuana narcotics agent Javier Rodriguez with a certain amount of familiarity.

"I have a few friends who are in DEA," he says. "I met them because of another show I did, a miniseries called 'Drug Wars,' about an agent who had infiltrated the drug cartels and got killed. That was back in 1991, for Michael Mann. There I got to know a little bit about the subject. Miami was really a hot spot then. Colombia was the hot source of drugs. Now Mexico and the Mexican border area have really heated up."

Nogales, Ariz., doubled for Tijuana in many of the sequences ostensibly set in Mexico. Mr. Del Toro found a stark difference between the settings. "Nogales is a great little place," he says. "It's free of serious drug problems. In Tijuana, you sense a feeling of danger as soon as you cross the border.

"I used to go there when I was in college in San Diego, back in the middle 1980s. It seemed kind of laid-back then. Now it's scary. Something is ticking. Nogales was so nice in comparison. It's full of humility and sanity."

Mr. Cheadle spent enough time with DEA agents while prepping for the role of American narcotics agent Montel Gordon to convince him the agents have thankless jobs. "I have no desire to be in that position," he says.

"All anyone in law enforcement can do is bust you. That's the scope of the job. They can't get into treatment or figuring out the root causes of a problem. It's a very frustrating, high-stress job. It's a cliche, but they have to live with the possibility of death every day. They make $30,000 a year and know how much money the drug trade generates."

What seems to keep them honest and dedicated? "I think the belief that they're actually making a difference," Mr. Cheadle says. "They think they're doing the right thing. The guys I met regard themselves as soldiers, trained to fight the enemy rather than be compassionate or sympathetic toward him.

"They don't have the luxury of debating philosophical or moral points. They have to fight an uphill battle. It's difficult. I don't think anybody has the answer. It's a huge epidemic, a huge problem. We need to understand more about the need for these drugs. We know enough about the money and power elements. I'm for measures that would be less inclined to jail for first- and second-time offenders. I think people tend to come out of jail harder than they went in. And you can get better drugs in a lot of jails than you can on the outside."

During the promotional interviews, the press was quick to remind the major dramatic figures in "Traffic" that they seem to be having very good years.

Mr. Soderbergh, for example, probably will capture an Academy Award nomination for his direction of the first hit of 2000, "Erin Brockovich." That film also is likely to secure an Oscar for its leading lady, Julia Roberts.

Mr. Douglas, reflecting on the changes in his personal life, says, "It's been a lovely year."

He also may be the best-actor favorite for "Wonder Boys" and is viewed generously as a supporting-actor contender in "Traffic." Hollywood also may not be able to resist nominating Miss Zeta-Jones for supporting actress; she was about six months pregnant when she did the "Traffic" role.

Mr. Del Toro and Mr. Cheadle seem far likelier to be in serious contention for the supporting award, however. Because he enjoys custody of the more active and decisive role, Mr. Del Toro may have the inside track.


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