It’s easy to characterise Traffic as a by-the-numbers message film, a screed against the “war on drugs” that even colour-codes each of its various storylines to avoid confusion. Each storyline is custom-built to demonstrate the futility of the early-‘90s anti-drug initiatives of the United States, whether it’s someone immediately rising to replace an incarcerated druglord (in this case, his wife) or the USA “drug tsar” becoming disillusioned with his policies after his daughter descends into drug addiction (she pretty much just sleeps with a black guy, but here that counts as “bottoming out”).
The screenplay is intricately interwoven but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – it’s dramatically interesting that the druglord’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) takes the reins, but not particularly believable given she begins the film unaware of how her husband makes his money. Michael Douglas’s “drug tsar” has a similar accelerated arc, going from conservative judge to anti-“war on drugs” within a very short span.
But I’m being overly critical – Traffic is far better than a simple message film, with Soderbergh and a capable cast keeping the audience engaged enough to only notice such flaws in characterisation in retrospect. And the message is still relevant, even over a decade later.