USA Germany (147 mi) 2000 d: Steven Soderbergh
A film about the consequences of governmental lies, revealing a political climate awash in a sea of corruption, viewed as overtly cynical and deceptive, unable to speak truthfully even about ordinary matters, instilling a complete lack of faith in government. Spinning a narrative that covers interwoven stories unraveling on multiple fronts from Tijuana, Mexico, to the upscale neighborhoods of La Jolla and San Diego in southern California, El Paso, Texas, the Midwestern rust belt of Cincinnati, and the seat of governmental power in Washington D.C. Making appearances as themselves are sitting U.S. Senators Harry Reid of Nevada, Barbara Boxer of California, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah, while Bill Weld is the current governor of Massachusetts, giving this a documentary feel for authenticity, an exposé on the futile limitations of the War on Drugs, all window dressing with very little understanding on how to actually make a difference, yet this plays out more like a thriller, as competing drug cartels in Mexico make massive amounts of profits, investing in the latest technological advances, where their spy equipment is much more sophisticated than anything on the U.S. side of the border, with each side trying to peel off informants, where stealing information is the only way to stay in the game. Like some sort of modern era spy novel, this gets dark and dirty on the Mexican side, where torture has become routine. While the United States tries to keep up, they don’t have the money or resources to compete, often fooled by who’s working for who, as it’s a dizzying parade of interchangeable parts where life expectancy is extremely low as murder rates are high. What’s immediately apparent is the stylish manner in which this unravels, using color filters to remind viewers of three distinct geographical regions, as Tijuana is oversaturated with bleached out color, southern California is always sunny and bright, while Cincinnati in the Midwest is portrayed with a light blue filter. Acting as his own cinematographer (under the alias Peter Andrews), one of the last Soderbergh films that was primarily shot on film, this is distinguished by an innovative style, energetic and suspenseful throughout, brilliantly mixing known faces with unknowns, using a myriad of aspiring young actors that are now among the Hollywood elite, where recognizable faces are even filling relatively small roles (Albert Finney, Salma Hayek, Viola Davis), though many of them were not known at the time. Benicio del Toro won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as a local Mexican cop speaking primarily Spanish throughout, one of only five actors to have won an Academy Award for a role spoken mainly in a foreign language, the others being Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro, Marion Cotillard, and Roberto Benigni. Other Academy Award winners include Steven Soderbergh (Best Director), Stephen Gaghan (Best Adapted Screenplay), and Stephen Mirrione (Best Editing).
Adapted from the 6-part British television mini-series from 1989 written by Simon Moore interweaving three stories about the international drug trade entitled Traffik, Soderbergh similarly features three storylines (though it feels like more), with a percussive score written by Cliff Martinez, opening with del Toro as Javier Rodriguez and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) making a drug bust out in the heat of an empty field, catching a plane landing filled with drugs, waiting until it’s loaded into a van and then arresting the men, but they are quickly overtaken by even larger police vehicles who take over the bust, commanded by General Salazar (Tomas Milian) for their excellent intelligence information, but claiming it’s their jurisdiction, as he’s a higher ranking official. What this suggests is there are always bigger fish in the ocean. Like a Godfather saga, the unseen hands that hold the true levers of power are mostly never seen by the public, existing by reputation only, operating in secret completely behind the scenes, where the two largest rivals are the Tijuana (run by the Obregón brothers) and the Juárez (run by Porfilio Madrigal, Joel Torres, supposedly changing his appearance through plastic surgery) drug cartels, where the public faces are operators and distributors disguised as ordinary businessmen. Early on one of these businessmen, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested at his upscale home in La Jolla as his distraught wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) looks on, covering her son’s eyes from the mess he’s gotten into, charged with being the biggest U.S. drug distributor for the Obregóns, with a tough-minded Ohio judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) wanting to send a harsh message to the Mexican cartels. Wakefield is eventually selected to become the next Drug Czar for the nation, selected by the President, though he’s warned by his predecessor General Landry (James Brolin) that the War on Drugs is unwinnable, as the demand for drugs in the United States is simply too high (the U.S. consumes more than 55% of all illicit drugs produced, although it represents only 5% of the total world population), so the supply to meet that demand is ridiculously profitable, becoming what amounts to the largest illegal business operation anywhere in existence, a $50 billion dollar industry in Mexico alone and another $60 billion in the U.S. This is what drives the horrendous murder rates in Mexico, nearly 30,000 deaths just last year, many of them casualties of war as innocent bystanders, much of this covered in Gerardo Naranjo’s exasperatingly realistic film Miss Bala (2011), while also opening the door to the HBO TV mini-series The Wire (2002–2008), both of which serve as a follow-up to this film. While del Toro’s role is not only the central focus, as he’s just one guy trying to do something about it, but he may be the only character in the film unstained by the lure of money, so he is the moral center of the picture. Lured by General Salazar to come work for him, they immediately target the Obregón brothers, hiring Javier to kidnap one of their professional hitmen, Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins Jr.), who is tortured for information, turning into a massive raid on the Tijuana cartel that receives plenty of publicity in the United States as a cleanup operation, with Wakefield visiting Salazar in Mexico, believing this is his counterpart, with an intent to share resources and operational information, but this never comes to pass for various reasons, most of all an inherent distrust.
One of the more compelling storylines is the life of Wakefield’s 16-year old daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen, a stand-out), an honors high school student near the top of her class in an elite private school who has a habit of experimenting with serious drugs, including freebasing cocaine to shooting heroin, becoming the sex toy of her black dealer (Vonte Sweet), bringing the war on drugs back home, where her descent feels highly improbable, yet it reflects the real-life circumstances and observations of writer Stephen Gaghan, a drug abuser who came from a similar privileged background. In fact, Caroline’s résumé of school activities, academic achievement, and sports clubs that she recites to a social worker is that of writer Gaghan himself. This is a heartbreaking aspect of the story that continually disrupts and interferes with Wakefield’s lofty ambitions, causing marital dysfunction with his wife (Amy Irving), forever keeping the family in turmoil, suggesting drug abuse is not just for the poor, yet it also adds a racial component to the film that is disturbingly provocative, to say the least, especially the way the black community is so dispassionately analyzed in starkly realistic capitalistic terms by one of Caroline’s white high school friends, suggesting that at any given moment in America, 100,000 white people are driving through black neighborhoods looking for drugs, where a dealer who can make $200 in two hours is hardly motivated to look elsewhere for employment. Then imagine 100,000 black people scouring white neighborhoods in search of drugs, wouldn’t there be similar results? It’s a matter of simple economics. In similar fashion, there is another head-scratching development when Helena is threatened by the drug cartels to pay back an outrageous amount of money owed by her husband, snuggling under the comforting wing of her husband’s high-priced lawyer (Dennis Quaid), actually making a visit to Tijuana for a ballsy face-to-face with Juan Obregón (Benjamin Bratt), startling everyone by expertly demonstrating her capacity to turn into one of the drug lords overnight, re-assuming her husband’s position as the primary west coast distributor. And let’s not forget to mention the comedy team of undercover eavesdroppers, DEA investigators Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Juan Guzmán) in San Diego, two smart alecks with a chemistry for satiric, in your face, trash talking, who set the bait to arrest Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) posing as a fisherman, one of Ayala’s most proficient dealers, wanting immunity to testify against his former boss, which makes all the headlines. The other shocking development is the discovery that General Salazar is actually working for the Juárez cartel, which explains his interest in wiping out the Obregón brothers, but after taking a hit they demonstrate a surprising capacity to fight back. Both Javier and Manolo are well aware that this revelation is worth plenty of money to the Americans, with Manolo losing his life trying to make a deal. Javier has few options left but to complete the deal afterwards, an act that feels like betrayal for him, yet he doesn’t want a penny for himself, requesting electricity in his run-down neighborhood, as his real interest is developing a baseball diamond in Tijuana with lights, a place where kids have a chance to play baseball at night rather than be tempted by street gangs and the ravaging drug culture. Salazar is quickly arrested and seen facing the same music he demanded so brazenly from others, viciously tortured while incarcerated, likely murdered, a heinous part of a business that ultimately takes a deathly toll. The film does paint a grim portrait of an unwinnable war on drugs, leaving an endless cycle of investigations and court cases and a human cost of perpetual bodies littered in its wake, with the music of Brian Eno playing over the end credits, Brian Eno - AN ENDING (ascent) - YouTube (4:21), mixed with the sounds of kids playing baseball, leaving us with an empty feeling of overall futility, where one can only hope.
The War on Drugs is an anti-drug crusade that is costing billions of dollars a year and sending millions of people to jail, yet doing little to stop the flow of illegal substances. The film was intended to change the way Americans think about drugs, but other than a more receptive approach to the decriminalization of marijuana in many states, the sorry fact is little has changed, with most of the money going to ever more sophisticated police weaponry, as if fighting an actual war where superior weaponry prevails in battle skirmishes, but therein lies the problem, assuming there is an enemy to be fought. The strategy to wage war is an illusion, a diversionary tactic that takes our eyes away from the multitude of victims who need treatment from the consequences of addiction. Instead the priority is a false political overreaction that results in arming our police forces to the teeth for SWAT team arrests, which intentionally create a racial divide, overcrowding the prison population with a targeted criminal underclass that is almost exclusively black and brown, never targeting the more affluent white communities with the majority of whites skating jail time. This blatant racial profile has become the standard police policy across the nation, basically criminalizing drug usage in poor minority communities while excusing it in more affluent white neighborhoods. This only leads to a criminal justice system that refuses to render anything remotely resembling justice, becoming a biased government policy that can withstand all legal challenges, where the very heart of its intent is to implement a racist drug policy that targets our most vulnerable citizens, the drug users and small-time operators, all but ignoring the big suppliers, as they’re too well shielded by interglobal corporate accounts and legal strategies that make them all but undetectable. For all practical purposes they don’t exist, as they rarely serve prison time. Instead we punish those at the lower end of the economic spectrum who are easy pickings, who don’t have the money to make bail, whose destitute communities have been ravaged by the drug trade, one of the few enterprises in a blighted economic wasteland that’s always open for business. In 2016 there were 1.5 million drug arrests, where over 80% were for possession only. At every stage of the judicial process people of color experience more discrimination, as they are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record, where the imprisonment rate of blacks for similar drug charges is six times that of whites. The impact on families is significant, as one in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children, and one in 57 white children. Just consider, for instance, that if blacks and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%. This is what the war on drugs has become, a 500 percent increase in incarceration in our country that disproportionately affects poor minorities, which is basically an excuse to lock up a million black men and declare victory. It’s significant to recall the words of those who have dedicated their lives working in the field, who end up feeling inadequate, frustrated, and hopelessly overwhelmed. After twenty-five years of doing undercover work for the DEA, former agent Michael Levine, author of Deep Cover: The Inside Story of How DEA Infighting, Incompetence, and Subterfuge Lost Us the Biggest Battle of the Drug War, 1990, writes:
It is both sobering and painful to realize, having personally accounted for at least three thousand criminals serving fifteen thousand years in jail, and having seized several tons of various illegal substances, that my career was meaningless and had absolutely no effect whatsoever in the so-called war on drugs. The war itself is a fraud.