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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
hances are you’ve already seen “Traffic,” the 2000 film from director Steven Soderbergh. Especially for the kind of movie it was, it did remarkably well both critically and commercially. It snagged all sorts of awards, including Oscars for Best Screenplay, Editing, Director and Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro (and it was also nominated for Best Picture). According to IMDb, it did around $124 million at the box office, which is no small feat for a flick that was little more than a glossy art film. That’s not meant to demean it, but rather to put it in perspective. What was it about “Traffic” that captured the public’s attention? Obviously the writing was a big factor, and part of that screenplay Oscar belonged to Simon Moore (at least in spirit), since he wrote this miniseries, upon which the Soderbergh film was based 11 years prior. Without his ideas, characters, and take on the material, Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan never would or could have made their immensely popular movie.
If you have not seen Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” then it’s time for a rundown of what “Traffik” is all about. It tells three tangentially related stories that each offer up a different side of the heroin trade. The first story is that of Jack Lithgow (Bill Paterson, an actor who appears incapable of giving a weak performance), a minister for the U.K. government whose job involves combating the drug trade on numerous levels. When the series begins, he is in Pakistan overseeing the finer details of how the drug is created, and making decisions about grants that may or may not be given to the country that seem wholly dependant on his judgment. What Jack doesn’t realize is that for many Pakistanis, growing the opium poppy plants from which heroin is manufactured is their sole source of income. His actions will ultimately cause as much harm for the people of Pakistan as the good they may do for the people of the U.K.
What Jack also doesn’t realize is that back home in dreary ol’ England, his teenage daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond, in her first acting role) has been sliding down the slippery slope of heroin herself. As you might imagine, for a man with his responsibilities, having a daughter rolling down the smack highway isn’t exactly an ideal situation. It’s a heartbreaking story, and as played in “Traffik,” is presented in a far less sensational manner than what Soderbergh gave us. Of course, the same can be said for most of the mini vs. the movie, which isn’t to disparage Soderbergh’s take on the material. If you do any amount of reading about “Traffik,” you’ll see early on that many of its fans believe it to be superior to Soderbergh’s film, and it’s a sentiment I can’t really get onboard. They’re just two different ways of telling the same story, told in two different mediums, and made for different audiences. “Traffic” is stylish and streamlined, whereas “Traffik” is gritty and expansive.
The second storyline is probably the least engaging of the three, and it was in Soderbergh’s film as well. It’s the “middleman” aspect of the trade, and as such is unable to pack the same kind of resonance the other two stories offer. It tells the story of Helen Rosshalde (Lindsay Duncan), the wife of a heroin dealer living in Germany. Her husband has been busted, and her world begins to collapse around her. Eventually, out of desperation, she sees that the only way she’s going to keep her life together is to pick up where her husband left off, by importing the drug from Pakistan and getting it out to the dealers on the streets. It’s a risky move, but she’s a smart, driven woman who can get the job done. There’s a backstory of her having been an Olympic swimmer that adds a great deal of cred to her fortitude, which is exactly the sort of character shading that “Traffic” lacked, but “Traffik” can afford to do since it’s about five hours long.
The third and final storyline may be the most fascinating, and it’s here where “Traffik” becomes must-see material for fans of “Traffic,” because this segment was excised entirely from the Soderbergh film, and replaced with the Benicio Del Toro material. Fazal (Jamal Shah) is a poor poppy farmer living in Pakistan. Due to Jack’s moralizing, the fields which Fazal farms are burned, and so he is forced to seek employment elsewhere. He eventually earns the trust of Tariq Butt (Talat Hussain), the rich heroin supplier to the Rosshaldes and presumably many others. Fazal works hard for Tariq, and the two seem to have a mutual respect for one another. But events go disastrously south and Fazal’s is the most poignant, disturbing ending of all three stories. It would be unfair to reveal any more, since it is this storyline that will genuinely move many who are seeing this miniseries for the first time.
What struck me most about “Traffik” is that I was unable to decide whether or not it was more important than ever, or if it is a portrayal of a struggle that may be past its prime – or perhaps a little of both. The thing is, we live in a much different world than that of 1989, or even 2000, for that matter. There are so many more important issues that we must address on a near daily basis – the failed economy, unnecessary wars, and global warming, to name but a few – and the trafficking of heroin (or indeed any drug) quite frankly seems minor in comparison. But therein lays the beauty and importance of “Traffik.” Why are we spending money to combat a system that shows no signs of slowing down, and is very likely affecting the livelihoods of people in foreign countries? The drug war has failed. Not just in our country, but in any country where people have the money and desire to get fucked up. To quote Bill Maher: “You want to support poor people in Latin America? Buy more coke.”
Special Features: This set is both “remastered” and a “20th Anniversary Edition,” yet it’s unlikely to be worth an upgrade for anyone owning the previous version. It still has the same grainy look that was the hallmark of numerous British miniseries produced around the same time, only it probably looks slightly cleaner. I’m only guessing, having not seen the previous edition, but it’s an educated guess given that the biggest bonus feature on this set is an extended cut of the sixth and final episode, which begins with a banner claiming it has not been remastered, and yet the difference in video quality from the series proper is negligible. It runs about 13 minutes longer than the other cut of Episode 6, and most of the extra material centers on Jack and Caroline. Aside from that, there’s a 12-minute interview with Simon Moore and producer Brian Eastman, which was probably shot around the same time as the miniseries. Additionally, there are only some cast bios, a photo gallery and a text piece called “From ‘Traffik’ to ‘Traffic’,” which briefly explains how the mini was translated to the film.