“Opium…they’re just weeds. They’ll grow anywhere. They just happen to be the richest weeds in the world.”
The inadequacies of 2000’s Traffic are clearly evident when one has the pleasure to watch the original British television miniseries on which the theatrical film was based. That series was called Traffik and was first broadcast in 1989. The intent of Traffik was to present a broader and more realistic perspective on the whole process of drug trafficking than had been previously done, either on television or in a theatrical film. Utilizing a three-pronged story with all parts brilliantly intertwined and a very fine international cast, Traffik is a film experience that will stay with you for a long time.
For those who may have never seen Traffik before, Acorn Media has released the six-part series on DVD in a two-disc box set.
British government minister Jack Lithgow travels to Pakistan to discuss a new aid agreement aimed at reducing opium production and the eventual production of heroin. While there, he meets Fazal, a local farmer, who passes him a letter outlining the difficulties the farmers face. Upon returning home, Jack has his own problems as it soon develops that his university-age daughter Caroline is a heroin user and the family crisis that follows threatens Jack’s marriage. Dealing with his domestic crisis begins to give Jack a new perspective on the drug problem and as he prepares to return to Pakistan to sign the new agreement, he begins to wonder whether the aid it offers will really solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Fazal has traveled to Karachi in search of work and is able to get employment with Tariq Butt, a major heroin dealer. Starting as a chauffeur, Fazal gradually wins Butt’s confidence and is eventually placed in charge of a major drug deal. The deal is broken up at the last moment by the Pakistani authorities and Fazal is arrested. Fazal’s wife agrees to work for Butt in order to get Butt’s help to have Fazal released. She soon finds that the work involves smuggling drugs into Britain.
The drugs destined for Britain constitute a shipment arranged with Butt by Helen, the British wife of a German businessman who had been arrested for drug smuggling. At first floored by the revelation that her husband Karl had been so involved, she soon resolved to take over direction of the business in an effort to guarantee her family’s future and also secure Karl’s release.
All three threads intertwine and eventually reach a climax as Jack prepares to sign the aid agreement, Helen waits by the phone for news of the arrival of the drug shipment, and Fazal gets released from prison and goes to thank Tariq Butt.
Traffik consists of six episodes, each 55 minutes in length on average. I sat down to watch the first episode and found that I’d watched four of them before I forced myself to take a break. The narrative was that spellbinding. Needless to say, I took the first opportunity I had to view the final two episodes, and when they were over, I sat back and just stared at the screen for a while turning over images and ideas from the film in my mind. Watching this miniseries was exciting, thought-provoking, mesmerizing, uplifting, saddening — a whole gamut of emotions and reactions.
I saw the theatrical feature Traffic at the theatre last year and found it fairly diverting. I somehow missed noticing the fact that it had been based on the Traffik miniseries. Comparing the two now and even allowing for the fact that Traffic only has about a third of the time to tell the same story, Traffic‘s stature has diminished substantially for me. Traffik is better than Traffic in every respect. It tells a story that is completely realistic and that draws you deeply into three different story threads instead of leaving you as a detached observer. It’s a film that develops a gritty atmosphere by standing on the strength of its narrative rather than on annoying Dogme nonsense like shaky handheld camera work or on sepia images to identify one of its subplots. It’s an experience that is brilliantly acted by a uniformly excellent cast rather than one whose unevenness is emphasized by the presence of stars like Michael Douglas with his usual one-note performance. And finally, it’s a film that truly conveys the complexity and international scope of the drug problem while relating it to the problems of individual people and families, rather than reducing it to the level of an often impersonal cross-border U.S./Mexico stand-off.
One can only marvel at the work of the actors in Traffik. The British subplot features Bill Paterson as Jack Lithgow and Julia Ormond as Caroline. Paterson is a veteran Scottish actor with a wealth of experience in British television and film over the past 20 years. His portrayal of Lithgow as a dispassionate man who gradually begins to recognize his emotional shortcomings is one of those assured performances that make acting look so easy. Julia Ormond has a difficult role for she must be convincing as a junkie yet not lose our sympathy given the circumstances that have led her to that state. That she succeeds so well is impressive given that the role represents her film debut. In the German subplot, Helen is played by Lindsay Duncan, another Scottish player with lengthy experience in British television and film. She has to make us believe that a woman who knows nothing of her husband’s drug activities can take over the business and run it successfully. Before our eyes, she gradually transforms Helen from a frightened housewife who doesn’t know where to turn to a woman with more steely-eyed resolve than her husband. Finally, the two actors who play Fazal and Taliq Butt in the Pakistan subplot — Jamal Shah and Talat Hussain respectively — are both very effective, particularly Shah who has the more challenging role.
One must give much of the credit for Traffik‘s quality to its writer Simon Moore and director Alastair Reid. Moore skillfully weaves three subplots together and provides a wealth of information on all aspects of the heroin drug trade. He does so in the course of an interesting narrative that introduces fully-rounded characters that develop and change in startling ways in the course of the film’s five-plus hours. Alas, Moore’s early promise demonstrated with Traffik does not seem to have been fully realized in the intervening 12 years. Alastair Reid got the job of directing Traffik on the strength of his experience in both action dramas and previous filming in Pakistan. Reid’s work excels in both such components of Traffik, but it is his skill in seamlessly merging the three subplots and artfully cutting between them that really stands out. One is at first a little disconcerted by the abrupt jumps from one country to another, for one is used to more gradual transitions often with establishing shots. You soon become accustomed to them, however, and you begin to appreciate how an event in one country often is closely mirrored by the nature of the event in the other country to which Reid jumps. Much of the work by Reid is acknowledged in the interesting 13-minute interview of Simon Moore and producer Brian Eastman that is included as a supplement on the DVD.
One would like to be able to report on a DVD transfer that matches the excellence of the film. Alas, Acorn Media’s efforts are less than stellar. This is a two-disc box set with three episodes on each disc. Each episode retains its complete credits at the start and end. The film is presented full frame as originally shot; however, the image is very grainy or hazy virtually throughout, with little discernible difference in quality between interior and exterior, or night- and daytime shots. One must admit that the graininess is to some extent an intention of the original production in order to give the proceedings a gritty feel, but not, I suspect, to the level evident on the DVD transfer. Colours are subdued most of the time. The sound, Dolby Digital mono, does an adequate job of delivering what is a dialogue-driven film. Some haunting music by Shostakovich (if I read the credits correctly) is nicely conveyed and really grows on you as the episodes proceed.
Other than the previously mentioned interview, the only other supplements (all on the first disc) are a brief on-screen text summary how the feature film Traffic arose from the mini-series and incomplete filmographies for some of the cast and crew.
I highly recommend seeing Traffik. It’s a well-written, acted, and directed mini-series that tells a highly compelling story encompassing all aspects of the heroin trade. Even if you thought Traffic was good, you’ll be blown away by this. Despite an interesting interview and acceptable sound, the DVD release is not one of the better ones around, even allowing for the nature of the original source material. I don’t expect to see another better release anytime soon, however, so I recommend that you hustle out and get this one right away.