Traffic, a film written by Stephen Gaghan and directed by Steven Soderbergh, opens nationally today. Like most Hollywood product, it has its share of loose ends and careless omissions: After touting the efforts criminals will make to evade surveillance, for instance, the film forgets itself and shows a hit man giving a play-by-play of an assassination over a cell phone. Still, as an entertainment, Traffic is strong stuff. It's exciting and engrossing, with a tightly woven trio of storylines.

But the big news about Traffic isn't its entertainment value. It's the movie's message. Traffic is forthrightly opposed to the war on drugs in its present form. A decade ago, as the last President Bush declared a national jihad against mood-altering chemicals, no American movie critical of the drug war could have attracted this film's budget, star power, and favorable critical notices: There would have been no major roles for Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, let alone cameos for Barbara Boxer and Orrin Hatch; no Best Picture and Best Director awards from the New York Critics' Circle; no noisy Oscar buzz. It is a measure of how far both elite and popular opinion have come that this movie could be made at all. It says even more that fashionable critics have embraced it and that audiences are apparently poised to do the same.

But just how far has public opinion really come? Soderbergh has been shifting gears as an artist, transforming himself from an above-average art-house writer-director to one of Hollywood's best directors-for-hire. (All of his recent work--the excellent thrillers Out of Sight and The Limey, the lamentable but still well-directed Erin Brokovich--was written by other hands.) Similarly, the movie's message is forward-looking but mainstream; progressive, but scarcely avant-garde. Traffic is as notable for what it doesn't say as for what it does: There are lines that this film, too, will not cross.

What is Traffic's message? First, that the drug war simply isn't working--that consumer demand is too big, the southern border too long, and the opportunities for corruption too great for the government to stem the trade in narcotics. Second, that it's hypocritical to outlaw some drugs while allowing people to medicate themselves freely with alcohol and tobacco. And third, to quote Soderbergh's recent interview with Roger Ebert, that we should "approach this as a health care issue, not a criminal issue."

The film devotes one of its subplots to this last theme, showing the newly appointed drug czar's daughter (played by Erika Christensen) descend into cocaine addiction. This sequence seems more like a made-for-TV movie than a serious look at a drug problem, substituting familiar and occasionally offensive shorthand for well-drawn character development. The first time we see Christensen using drugs, her boyfriend introduces her to freebasing; after one hit, she feels compelled to have sex with him. Further intercourse follows, and when she hits rock bottom, the film signifies this by showing her in bed with--jeepers!--a black man. Christensen's performance consists mostly of looking alternately virginal and sexually aroused, depending on whether she's high at the moment, culminating in a creepy scene where she regards her father with her stoned/aroused expression, wistfully muttering "Daddy..." Parents beware!

I suppose it's a perverse pleasure to see such heavy-handed tactics in a movie that actually opposes the drug war. But it's a long distance from, say, Trainspotting (1995), a much more intelligent movie about both the appeal and the dangers of drug misuse. Trainspotting does not present addiction "as a health issue," but as a choice individuals make in order to achieve particular ends, whether or not those ends will meet with social approval. Which brings to mind another facet of society that Traffic leaves unexamined: those people who use drugs in moderation, avoiding addiction altogether. This group includes the vast majority of America's marijuana and alcohol users, and a substantial number of the users of other chemicals as well.

It's progress for people to discuss drugs as a public-health problem: If nothing else, it's a step away from the draconian measures being advanced in the name of crime control. But as the public-health model becomes conventional wisdom and policy slowly starts to shift, it's time for the drug war's foes to start staking out fresher ground, arguing for the right of individuals to decide for themselves what they will put into their own bodies--and to decide for themselves whether it's become a problem they need to control.

From that standpoint, Traffic becomes a paradox: both a first breath of fresh air and a dying gasp of hysteria.

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Traffic (Rated R). Starring: Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Stephen Gaghan.