In Mexico, police officer Javier Rodriguez (del Toro) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Vargas) stop a drug transport and arrest the couriers. Their arrest is interrupted by General Salazar (Milian), a high-ranking Mexican official who decides to hire Javier. Salazar instructs him to apprehend Francisco Flores (Collins), a hitman for the Tijuana Cartel, headed by the Obregón brothers.
Back in Tijuana, Flores, under torture, gives Salazar the names of important members of the Obregón cartel, who are arrested. Javier and Salazar's efforts begin to cripple the Obregón brothers' cocaine outfit, but Javier soon discovers Salazar is a pawn for the Juárez Cartel, the rival of the Obregón brothers. That entire portion of the Mexican anti-drug campaign is a fraud, as Salazar is wiping out one cartel because he has aligned with another for profit.
Javier's partner Sanchez attempts to sell the information of Salazar's true affiliation to the DEA but is killed for his betrayal. Javier, who can no longer stomach working for Salazar, decides to make a deal with the DEA. In exchange for his testimony, Javier requests electricity in his neighborhood so the youngsters can play baseball at night rather than be tempted by street gangs and crime. Salazar's secrets are revealed to the public, and he is arrested and is shown suffering probable torture in prison.
Javier explains to the media about the widespread corruption in the police force and army. In Mexico, Javier watches as children play baseball at night in their new stadium.
Meanwhile, Robert Wakefield (Douglas), a conservative Ohio judge, is appointed to head the President's Office of National Drug Control Policy, taking on the title drug czar. Robert is warned by his predecessor (Brolin) and several influential politicians that the War on Drugs is unwinnable. Robert's daughter, Caroline (Christensen), an honors student, has been using cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin which quickly develops into a drug addiction after her boyfriend Seth (Grace) introduces her to freebasing. Caroline, Seth, and Vanessa are all arrested when a fellow student overdoses on drugs, and they try to dump him anonymously at a hospital. As Robert and his wife Barbara (Irving) struggle to deal with the problem, Robert discovers that Barbara has known about their daughter's involvement with drugs for over six months.
Robert realizes his daughter Caroline is a drug addict and is caught between his demanding new position and difficult family life. On a visit to Mexico, he is encouraged by Salazar's successful efforts in hurting the Obregón brothers. When he returns to Ohio, Robert learns his efforts to see Caroline rehabilitated have failed. She has run away to the city of Cincinnati, and no one knows her exact location. She steals from her parents to procure money for drugs.
Robert drags Seth along as he begins to search Cincinnati for his daughter. After a drug dealer who is prostituting Caroline refuses to reveal her whereabouts, Robert breaks into a seedy hotel room and finds a semi-conscious Caroline in the company of an older man. He breaks down in tears as Seth quietly leaves. Robert returns to Washington, D.C., to give his prepared speech on a "10-point plan" to win the war on drugs. In the middle of the speech, he falters as he realizes how futile this all is, then tells the press that the War on Drugs implies a war even on some people's own family members, which he cannot endorse. He then walks out of the press conference and takes a taxi to the airport. Robert and Barbara go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings with their daughter to support her and others.
A third story is set in San Diego, where an undercover DEA investigation led by Montel Gordon (Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Guzmán) leads to the arrest of Eduardo Ruiz (Ferrer), a high-stakes dealer posing as a fisherman. Ruiz decides to take the dangerous road to immunity by giving up his boss: drug lord Carl Ayala (Bauer), the biggest distributor for the Obregón brothers in the United States. Ayala is indicted by a tough prosecutor, hand-selected by Robert Wakefield to send a message to the Mexican drug organizations.
As the trial against Ayala begins, his pregnant wife Helena (Zeta-Jones) learns of her husband's true profession from his associate, Arnie Metzger (Quaid). Facing the prospect of life imprisonment for her husband and death threats against her only child, Helena decides to hire Francisco Flores to assassinate Eduardo Ruiz; she knows killing Ruiz will effectively end the trial nolle prosequi. Flores plants a car bomb on a DEA car in an assassination attempt against Ruiz. Shortly after planting the bomb, Flores is assassinated by a sniper in retaliation for his cooperation with General Salazar. The car bomb meant to kill Ruiz instead kills Agent Castro, but Gordon and Ruiz survive.
Helena, knowing Ruiz is soon scheduled to testify, makes a deal with Juan Obregón (Bratt), lord of the drug cartel, who forgives the Ayala family's debt and has Ruiz poisoned. Ayala is released, much to the dissatisfaction of Gordon, who is still angry over his partner's death. During a phone conversation between Ayala and Metzger, Ayala deduces that it was Metzger who originally informed on Ruiz. Evidently in a bid for power with another drug cartel in Mexico, Metzger accepted $3 million to inform on Ruiz to the FBI and facilitate the Ayala organization's downfall. Ayala says that Metzger was planning on taking over Ayala's empire completely. As Ayala hangs up the phone, Metzger looks up to see two hit men entering his office. Soon after Ayala's release, Gordon bursts into the Ayala home during his homecoming celebration. Bodyguards wrestle him to the ground, but Gordon is able to surreptitiously plant a listening bug under Ayala's desk. Gordon is forced from the property, with the satisfaction of knowing that there is now a new opportunity to trap Ayala.
Some aspects of the plotline are based on actual people and events:The character General Arturo Salazar is closely modeled after Mexican General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who was secretly on the payroll of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez Cartel.The character Porfirio Madrigal is modeled after Fuentes.The Obregón brothers are modeled after the Tijuana Cartel's Arellano Félix brothers.
At one point in the film, an El Paso Intelligence Center agent tells Robert his position, official in charge of drug control, doesn't exist in Mexico. As noted in the original script, a Director of the Instituto Nacional para el Combate a las Drogas was created by the Attorney General of Mexico in 1996.
Steven Soderbergh had been interested in making a film about the drug wars for some time but did not want to make one about addicts. Producer Laura Bickford obtained the rights to the United Kingdom mini-series Traffik (1989) and liked its structure. Soderbergh, who had seen the mini-series in 1990, started looking for a screenwriter to adapt it into a film. They read a script by Stephen Gaghan called Havoc, about upper-class white kids in Palisades High School doing drugs and getting involved with gangs. Soderbergh approached Gaghan to work on his film, but found he was already working for producer/director Edward Zwick. Bickford and Soderbergh approached Zwick, who agreed to merge the two projects and come aboard as a producer.
Traffic was originally going to be distributed by 20th Century Fox, but it was put into turnaround unless actor Harrison Ford agreed to star. Soderbergh began shopping the film to other studios, but when Ford suddenly showed interest in Traffic, Fox's interest in the film was renewed, and the studio took it out of turnaround. Fox CEO Bill Mechanic championed the film, but he departed from the studio by the time the first draft was finished. It went back into turnaround. Mechanic had also wanted to make some changes to the script, but Soderbergh disagreed and decided to shop the film to other major studios. They all turned him down because they were not confident in the prospects of a three-hour film about drugs, according to Gaghan. USA Films, however, had wanted to take on the movie from the first time Soderbergh approached them. They provided the filmmakers with a $46 million budget, a considerable increase from the $25 million which Fox offered.
Soderbergh had "conceptual discussions" with Gaghan while he was shooting The Limey in October 1998, and they finished the outline before he went off to shoot Erin Brockovich. After Soderbergh was finished with that film, Gaghan had written a first draft in six weeks that was 165 pages long. After the film was approved for production, Soderbergh and Gaghan met two separate times for three days to reformat the script. The draft they shot with had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities. The film shortens the storyline of the original mini-series; a major character arc, that of a farmer, is taken out, and the Pakistani plotline is replaced with one set in Mexico.
Harrison Ford was initially considered for the role of Robert Wakefield in January 2000 but would have had to take a significant cut in his usual $20 million salary. Ford met with Soderbergh to flesh out the character. Gaghan agreed to rework the role, adding several scenes that ended up in the finished film. On February 20, Ford turned down the role, and the filmmakers brought it back to Michael Douglas, who had turned down an earlier draft. He liked the changes made and agreed to star, which helped greenlight the project. Gaghan believes Ford turned down the role because he wanted to "reconnect with his action fans".
The filmmakers sent out letters to many politicians, both Democrat and Republican, asking them to make cameo appearances in the film. Several of the scenes had already been shot using actors in these roles, but the filmmakers went back and re-shot those scenes when real politicians agreed to be in the film. Those who agreed, including U.S. Senators Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley, and Don Nickles, and Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, were filmed in a scene that was entirely improvised.
The project was obtained from Fox by Initial Entertainment Group, and was sold to USA Films by IEG for North American rights only. Steven Soderbergh never approached USA Films, and the film was fully funded by Initial Entertainment Group.
After Fox dropped the film in early 2000 and before USA Films expressed interest soon after, Soderbergh paid for pre-production with his own money. USA Films agreed to give him final cut on Traffic and also agreed to his term that all the Mexican characters would speak Spanish while talking to each other. This meant that almost all of Benicio del Toro's dialogue would be subtitled. Once the studio realized this, they suggested that his scenes be shot in both English and Spanish, but Soderbergh and del Toro rejected the suggestion. Del Toro, a native of Puerto Rico, was worried that another actor would be brought in and re-record his dialogue in English after he had worked hard to master Mexican inflections and improve his Spanish vocabulary. Del Toro remembers, "Can you imagine? You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said, 'No way. Over my dead body.' Steven was like, 'Don't worry. It's not gonna happen.'" The director fought for subtitles for the Mexico scenes, arguing that if the characters did not speak Spanish, the film would have no integrity and would not convincingly portray what he described as the "impenetrability of another culture".
The filmmakers went to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Customs early on with the script and told them that they were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. The DEA and Customs pointed out inaccuracies in the script. In addition, they gave the production team access to the border checkpoint to Mexico, as shown in the film during the scene in which Wakefield and his people talk with border officials. Despite the assistance, the DEA did not try to influence the content of the script. Soderbergh said Traffic had influences from the films of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard. He also spent time analyzing The Battle of Algiers and Z, which, according to the director, had the feeling that the footage was "caught" and not staged. Another inspiration was Alan J. Pakula's film All the President's Men because of its ability to tackle serious issues while being entertaining. In the opening credits of his film, Soderbergh tried to replicate the typeface from All the President's Men and the placement on-screen at the bottom left-hand corner. Analyzing this film helped the director deal with the large cast and working in many different locations for Traffic.
Half of the first day's footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio bosses knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. The insurers made him agree that any further mishaps resulting in additional filming would come out of the director's own pocket. Soderbergh shot in various cities in California, Ohio and Texas, on a 54-day schedule and came in $2 million under budget. The director operated the camera himself in an effort to "get as close to the movie as I can," and to eliminate the distance between the actors and himself. Soderbergh drew inspiration from the cinema verite style of Ken Loach's films, studying the framing of scenes, the distance of the camera to the actors, lens length, and the tightness of eyelines depending on the position of a character. Soderbergh remembers, "I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic". Most of the day was spent shooting because a lot of the film was shot with available light.
For the hand-held camera footage, Soderbergh used Panavision Millennium XLs that were smaller and lighter than previous cameras and allowed him to move freely. In order to tell the three stories apart, he adopted a distinctive look for each. For Robert Wakefield's story, Soderbergh used tungsten film with no filter for a cold, monochrome blue feel. For Helena Ayala's story, Soderbergh used diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposing it for a warmer feel. For Javier Rodriguez's story, the director used tobacco filters and a 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to produce a strobe-like sharp feel. Then, he took the entire film through an Ektachrome step, which increased the contrast and grain significantly. He wanted to have different looks for each story because the audience had to keep track of many characters and absorb a lot of information and he did not want them to have to figure out which story they were watching.
Benicio del Toro had significant input into certain parts of the film; for example, he suggested a simpler, more concise way of depicting his character kidnapping Francisco Flores that Soderbergh ended up using. The director cut a scene in which Robert Wakefield smokes crack after finding it in his daughter's bedroom. After rehearsing this scene with the actors, he felt that the character would not do it; after consulting with Gaghan, the screenwriter agreed and the filmmakers cut the scene shortly before it was scheduled to be shot.
The first cut of Traffic ran three hours and ten minutes. Soderbergh cut it down to two hours and twenty minutes. Early on, there were concerns that the film might get an NC-17 rating and he was prepared to release it with that rating, but the MPAA gave it an R.
Traffic was given a limited release on December 27, 2000 in four theaters where it grossed USD $184,725 on its opening weekend. It was given a wide release on January 5, 2001 in 1,510 theaters where it grossed $15.5 million on its opening weekend. The film made $124.1 million in North America and $83.4 million in foreign markets for a worldwide total of $207.5 million, well above its estimated $48 million budget.
Rotten Tomatoes reported that 92% of critics gave the film positive write-ups, based on a sample of 154, with an average score of 8/10, with del Toro receiving widespread acclaim, and the consensus being "Soderbergh successfully pulls off the highly ambitious Traffic, a movie with three different stories and a very large cast. The issues of ethics are gray rather than black-and-white, with no clear-cut good guys. Terrific acting all around." At Metacritic the film has received an average score of 86, based on 34 reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is powerful precisely because it doesn't preach. It is so restrained that at one moment—the judge's final speech—I wanted one more sentence, making a point, but the movie lets us supply that thought for ourselves". Stephen Holden, in his review for The New York Times, wrote, "Traffic is an utterly gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Or rather it is several interwoven thrillers, each with its own tense rhythm and explosive payoff". In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Traffic marks [Soderbergh] definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he's going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled".
Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and praised Benicio del Toro's performance, which critic Owen Gleiberman called, "haunting in his understatement, [it] becomes the film's quietly awakening moral center". Desson Howe, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, "Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who based this on a British television miniseries of the same name, have created an often exhilarating, soup-to-nuts exposé of the world's most lucrative trade". In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, "The hand-held camerawork – Soderbergh himself did the holding—provides a documentary feel that rivets attention". However, Richard Schickel, in his review for Time, wrote, "there is a possibly predictable downside to this multiplicity of story lines: they keep interrupting one another. Just as you get interested in one, Stephen Gaghan's script, inspired by a British mini-series, jerks you away to another". In an interview, director Ingmar Bergman lauded the film as "amazing".
Traffic appeared on several critics' top ten lists for 2000. Some of the notable top-ten list appearances are:2nd: A. O. Scott, The New York Times2nd: Jami Bernard, New York Daily News2nd: Bruce Kirkland, The Toronto Sun3rd: Stephen Holden, The New York Times3rd: Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly3rd: Peter Travers, Rolling Stone4th: Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times4th: Jack Mathews, New York Daily News
The film won Academy Awards in the categories Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Supporting Actor (Benicio del Toro), Best Film Editing (Mirrione), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Gaghan). It was also nominated for Best Picture, alongside another Soderbergh film, Erin Brockovich, but lost to Gladiator. Traffic was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Soderbergh for Best Director, del Toro for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture, and Stephen Gaghan for Best Screenplay. Both del Toro and Gaghan won in their respective categories. In addition, del Toro won Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role. He went on to win BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role along with Gaghan, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
New York Film Critics Circle named Traffic as the Best Film, Soderbergh as Best Director, and del Toro as Best Supporting Actor. Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Soderbergh Best Director. Members of the Toronto Film Critics Association voted Soderbergh as Best Director and del Toro as Best Actor. National Society of Film Critics also voted Soderbergh and del Toro as Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.