Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Feb 11 10:01:03 MST 2001

NY Times, February 11, 2001

Before "Traffic," an Earlier Drug Saga, With No Easy Answers


BEFORE "Traffic," Steven Soderbergh's widely praised film about the heroin
network stretching from Mexico into America, there was "Traffik." This
five-and-a-half-hour miniseries, produced by Britain's Channel Four in
1989, is being shown at the Museum of Television and Radio beginning
Thursday, and viewers of it will be able to recognize the source of each of
the subplots deftly juggled in Mr. Soderbergh's movie; what they won't find
is the film's glossy, melodramatic style or its preachy,
social-problem-picture tone.

The "k" in "Traffik" denotes the importance of Germany in the movement of
Pakistani heroin throughout Europe and specifically into England, and the
miniseries (which was shown on "Masterpiece Theater" in 1990) presents a
remarkably lucid and unsentimental overview of that segment of the drug
business. The California drug magnate of "Traffic," whose wife resurrects
his failing business when he's put on trial, was originally a Hamburg
dealer named Karl Rosshalde (George Kukura) with an English wife, Helen
(Lindsay Duncan). Bill Paterson has the drug czar role played by Michael
Douglas in the film; here it is Jack Lithgow, the British member of
Parliament who heads the Drug Abuse Committee. Lithgow is empowered to sign
an agreement guaranteeing continued aid to Pakistani farmers provided their
government cuts down on the production of heroin. Like Mr. Douglas's
character, Lithgow discovers with horror that his own daughter, Caroline
(Julia Ormond), is addicted to heroin.

An even closer equivalence of miniseries and movie is found in the story
line focusing on a pair of obsessive narcotics cops — Germans in the
earlier version (Fritz Müller-Scherz and Tilo Prückner) — whose capture of
one of Rosshalde's associates provides the major evidence in the case
against him. The forerunner of the film's mustache-twirling villain, a
Mexican general who has become rich off the sale of dope, is a Karachi
billionaire named Tariq Butt (Talat Hussein), who conceals his ruthlessness
under the guise of a merry wit and who perceives no contradiction between
his business dealings and his devotion to Islam. (Finding his son drunk at
a party, he slaps the boy and castigates him for turning his back on Muslim
teachings.) The morally beleaguered young man — the Benicio Del Toro role —
who comes into the drug lord's service and wins his trust isn't a corrupted
policeman but a farmer, Fazal (Jamal Shah), who moves to Karachi in hope of
a better life for his family.

The Fazal character is the most obvious example of how the miniseries,
which was directed by Alastair Reid from a dense, skillful script by Simon
Moore, differs from the film in both breadth and tone. Fazal begins as an
opium grower, migrating to the city out of desperation when his crop is
torched by Pakistani soldiers and when Lithgow ignores his petition for a
more liberal, considered policy on the treatment of local farmers. He
argues that the sugar cane he is now required to harvest doesn't bring in
enough to support his family and that farmers never see the benefits of
British aid because government corruption prevents it from filtering down.

In Butt's employ, Fazal observes that the pressure on Pakistani farmers to
stop growing opium is merely an exhibition to please the British
government. Butt just seeks his opium elsewhere — across the border in
Afghanistan. He's so well connected that he helps the government stage a
drug bust for Lithgow's benefit (the white powder in the seized bags turns
out to be flour) while the real goods are shipped to Hamburg via Pakistani
"mules" — travelers who ingest bags of heroin before boarding the plane.
One mule is Fazal's wife, Sabira (Ismat Shah Jahan), who's working off a
personal debt to Butt.

The moral complications of the Fazal plot prevent an easy reading of this
character, and even of the larger story of the opium wars. "Traffik"
continually reminds us of the broader context, crosshatched with the varied
agendas of highly individualized groups and people, against which the
phases of the drug trade play out. For example, Lithgow interviews an
Afghan rebel leader who explains that opium finances the operations of his
band of guerrillas: he trades dope for arms. Though the movie "Traffic,"
which was written by Stephen Gaghan, leaps impressively among the various
subplots, it presents each one without moral shadings. It sticks to its
thesis: that drugs are very bad and that we're losing the war against them.

Mr. Soderbergh has to keep us acutely aware of how we're supposed to feel
about the characters' behavior, because if we couldn't read their
motivations in block letters, the thesis might be blurred by ambiguity.
Even the most interesting piece of acting in the film, Benicio Del Toro's
performance as the crooked cop who undergoes a moral metamorphosis,
confirms the picture's black-and- white point of view. And there's never
any doubt that the drug czar's response to his daughter's addiction is
meant simply to bring home the wretchedness of heroin as well as show the
ferocity of his conviction. When she runs away from rehab, he hauls the kid
who started her on drugs out of school and bullies information out of him;
then he scours the streets of a shady downtown area until he finds her. In
other words, he behaves pretty much like the action heroes Michael Douglas
has played in half a dozen other movies. The irony that the chief of the
war against drugs turns out to have a junkie for a daughter shifts to an
implausibility — a plotting convenience that the viewer can't swallow,
especially since the news media apparently remain ignorant of this private
disturbance in the life of a very public figure.

By contrast, Jack Lithgow is an emotionally muted man with a rigid,
monochromatic view of the world. He can't conceive of a problem without a
solution or a situation he can't master. When the doctor who prescribes
heroin substitutes for Caroline tries to explain to him the difficulties of
getting an addict to stop taking drugs, his pride and obstinacy lead him to
ascribe the basest financial motives to her.

Lithgow, whose world is so badly shaken up that he has no choice but to
abandon his moral absolutes and stumble toward a more tormented and
uncertain perspective, is certainly the protagonist of "Traffik." And among
an excellent cast that includes the splendid actress Linda Bassett as his
wife, Bill Paterson gives the key performance. Mr. Paterson, who is best
known to American television audiences for his sharp-witted performance as
the psychiatrist in "The Singing Detective," approaches the role of Lithgow
with a piercing perceptiveness and a complete lack of any kind of actor's
vanity. He's such a drip-dry performer that when the character breaks down
in the final segment, in a reconciliation scene with his daughter, the
actor's emotional abandon after so much restraint is heartbreaking.

Mr. Paterson's performance is rightly the linchpin of a drama that shows
the same combination of honesty and restraint, depicting an often horrific
set of circumstances without either softening them or relying on lurid
detail to manipulate the audience. "Traffik" respects its viewers; its
faith in our ability to assimilate all the components of a layered, thorny
moral landscape is its biggest triumph.

Louis Proyect
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