Top critical review
Traffic: Hierarchizing America in the U.S.-Mexico Binary
on May 9, 2004
Traffic opens with a banner on the screen announcing the filmic location to be Mexico, "twenty miles southeast of Tijuana." The film is grainy and has a decidedly yellow (although some have romanticized this color, calling it sepia) tone, and the audience is introduced to two State Police officers, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), who are speaking Spanish. The dialogue begins with Javier explaining a nightmare to Manolo. Later, Javier and Manolo capture some drug transporters, the audience is introduced to the corrupt General Salazar (Tomas Milian), and the scene shifts to Columbus Ohio, where the graining is removed and the film is saturated with rich blue tones. Two minutes later, San Diego in all its beauty, arrives on screen.
The audience is immediately alerted to the difference between the United States and Mexico. Not only through language, but also through Soderbergh's use of the tobacco filter. But this should not be surprising; establishing differences between the two countries is necessary for Soderbergh to maintain the hierarchical position of the United States over Mexico. And, this hierarchization is, I argue, why Soderbergh is able to critique America, vis-à-vis U.S. drug policy, while still garnering critical and popular praise: implicating Mexico as the agent of America's woes and advancing stereotypical representations of both Mexico and Hispanics, effectively deposits Mexico and its inhabitants into the ancillary position of the U.S./Mexico binary.
Richard Porton's article in Cinéaste discusses the process Soderbergh goes through to create the yellowing of the Mexico scenes in the film. More importantly, in articulates the implications of Soderbergh's yellowing all of Mexico: "[Soderbergh] shot the Mexican sections 'through a tobacco filter' and then overexposed the film to imbue these vignettes with an oversaturated look. Mexico, therefore, becomes a miragelike, evanescent realm where life is cheap and morality is infinitely expendable. As film scholar and Latin American specialist Catherine Benamou observes, the movie 'posits an historical and moral hierarchy between the postmodern United States--which has to retrieve its moral foundations and family values--and premodern Mexico, which has presumably never been able to draw the line between the law and lawlessness'" (42) Significant about the hierarchy advanced by Benamou is that Mexico is implicated on both sides.
First, the film certainly portrays Mexico as a place of lawlessness. This is seen in the opening sequence with the drug transporters: not only are they breaking the law by transporting illegal substances, but General Salazar's intervention highlights (if not immediately, then certainly later in the film) the lawlessness of the federal authorities. Lawlessness is witnessed again twenty-one minutes into the film when two American tourists are pleading for Javier's help in finding their stolen car; here, the corruption of the state authorities is illuminated by Javier's having to give the couple the phone number of a man whom they will pay, who, in turn, will pay the police to make their car appear. And, of course, the hit man Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) being Hispanic and living in Mexico continues to fortify the notion of Mexico as lawless. Moreover, Soderbergh's representations of Mexicans as savages vis-à-vis the torturing of Frankie Flowers by General Salazar's men also accounts for Benamou's description of Mexico as premodern. The only thing that seems strange is General Salazar yelling to his men that "we are not savages," as if the exclamations of a corrupt official enmeshed in drug trafficking could somehow erase the scenes of stereotypic barbarism that Soderbergh captures through his tobacco filter.
Second, by yellowing all the Mexico sequences in the film, Mexico is implicated as the agent which has, as Benamou states, led the "postmodern United States" astray from its "moral foundations and family values," which it must now retrieve. Wood explains that by "beginning with the yellow camera filters, Soderbergh insinuates that nearly all Mexicans are somehow involved in the drug trade" (761). But the yellowing of Mexico implicates both the people and the land; Wood further states that "from the highest echelons of power to the street dealers and sidemen, Soderbergh's portrayal of life across the border establishes Mexico (and by extension, all of Latin America) as the fountain of evil that is the drug trade" (760).
Since, as Porton claims, Soderbergh's film is "primarily obsessed with how drugs have befouled the American family nest" (42), the argument is thus: (1) Benamou states that the U.S. is in a hierarchical position to Mexico but must still retrieve its moral foundations and family values; (2) these foundations and values are being destroyed by drugs (as seen via the Wakefield family); (3) yellowing the Mexico sequences implicates (nearly) all of Mexico and its inhabitants in the drug trade; (4) therefore, the disintegration of family values and morals in America is a result of lawless Mexico.
In this light, Mexico is doubly culpable: one, Mexico's own lawlessness has averted its progression into a postmodern stage of development; two, Mexico's premodernity and lawlessness has thwarted the United States and threatens to derail their progression to the next stage of cultural development, which allows Soderbergh to make his critique of the United States. Traffic can adduce the United States as a country lacking in morals and family values, but only by simultaneous producing a scapegoat that Americans can point to as the entity responsible for their woes. Wood observes that, by portraying Javier as a "noble soldier while nearly all his compatriots fall prey to kidnapping, assassination, torture, and betrayal, Traffic offers a skewed portrait of Mexican society in getting its anti-drug message across to U.S. audiences" (760).