Rating: * * * * Director: Steven Soderbergh Running time: 148 minutes Language: English and Spanish (with subtitles in Japanese and English)Now showing

It's rare enough that Hollywood makes an issue film, rarer still when it's an ongoing debate and not one where history has already decided who the "good guys" were. But director Steven Soderbergh's latest, "Traffic" -- which landed him this year's Oscar for best director -- is just such a film, a hard-edged look at the realities of the so-called war on drugs in Mexico and America. Like "Wag the Dog," it's one of those few films that can actually force people to reconsider the line the government feeds them.

"Traffic" is essentially three films in one: Benicio Del Toro plays an embattled cop in Mexico City, giving us a frontline view of the corruption that makes a moral stance nearly impossible; Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the wife of a jailed San Diego drug kingpin who's under pressure by the feds to spill the beans and by the drug gangs to fork up some cash; and Michael Douglas plays the president's drug czar caught between Washington's official hardline policy on drugs and his more forgiving instincts as a parent with a daughter on dope.

Soderbergh fashions a taut cops-vs.-dealers drama that intercuts skillfully between these three strands. While it's not exactly Costa-Gavras ("Missing"), "Traffic" is agit-prop: It forces us to examine the effects of drug policy on individuals, as opposed to the abstractions that policymakers prefer. We see how every character, no matter how principled, is pressured by larger forces to conform to the current paradigm, be that the posturing "tough-on-crime" approach of U.S. politicians or the opposite attitude of Mexican authorities.