When Stanley Kramer was producing his series of socially conscious but cinematically mediocre dramas back in the 1950s and 1960s, critics, confusing the artistic and the didactic, often called them important films which ought to be seen. They didn’t argue that they were good pictures, mind you, only that they were significant in terms of their messages and thereby worth paying for. Viewers responded by suffering through them out of a sense of duty–they were always poorly directed and often crudely written and indifferently acted, but they dealt with issues we all should take seriously (we were told), and so we showed our concern by attending them out of a sense of social obligation.

I mention this interesting phenomenon because some contemporary critics are likely to recommend “Traffic” as an important film that you ought to see because it portrays the horrendous effect of drugs on modern society and the failure of the war that governments have waged against commerce in them. Such an injunction may immediately put you off the picture, just as many of us eventually stopped going to Kramer’s efforts because we finally realized that a social conscience was no reason to endure a bad film. If you skip “Traffic” on those grounds, however, you’d be making a mistake. Yes, like Stanley Kramer’s movies it does deal with a major contemporary problem, and it does have a message to impart. But in the expert hands of Steven Soderbergh, it also happens to be a beautifully-crafted, intermittently powerful drama which, even at 147 minutes, maintains interest throughout. It has flaws which make it a very good film rather than a great one, but you should see it not because it will be good for you, like a dose of cinematic medicine, but simply because it’s a mostly superb piece of work.

An Americanized version of the British miniseries “Traffik,” which dealt with a drug route from Pakistan to England, Soderbergh’s ambitious ensemble effort weaves together a spate of interlocking stories related to the Mexican-U.S. trade in illegal substances. A major plot thread centers on two Tijuana cops, Javier (Benicio Del Toro) and Manolo (Jacob Vargas), whose anti-smuggling activities involve them with Mexico’s drug czar, General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian), as well as with a psychotic killer and possible informant named Francisco (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and, eventually, their American counterparts. Another narrative focuses on two U.S. DEA agents, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), whose arrest of small-timer distributor Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) leads them to his supplier, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer); they take Ayala into custody, leaving his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), with the help of their sleazy lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), to enter reluctantly into the business to save the family. Meanwhile we follow the unhappy journey of Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio judge just appointed the new U.S. drug czar, who becomes disenchanted with the thrust of current policy when, along with wife Barbara (Amy Irving), he discovers that his ostensibly perfect daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become addicted to drugs under the tutelage of oh-so-cool schoolmate Seth Abrahams (Topher Grace). This precis merely introduces the major players in Stephen Gaghan’s complicated scenario; they’re surrounded by a bevy of lesser characters portrayed by the likes of Albert Finney, James Brolin, Peter Riegert and Benjamin Bratt, as well as such real-life politicos as Bill Weld, Don Nickles, Harry Reed, Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley.

What’s astonishing is that despite the plethora of people on display and the convoluted interrelationships among them, Gaghan and Soderbergh manage throughout to keep the action crystal clear and easy to follow. That’s not to say, however, that all of the plot elements are equally compelling. The material dealing with the beat cops on each side of the border–Del Toro and Vargas on the one hand and Cheadle and Guzman on the other–is uncommonly realistic, strong, and shot through with flashes of gallows humor that make it all the more truthful. The narrative lines connected with General Salazar (based on a real figure) and Helena Ayala’s fearful entry into the drug trade are also vibrant and grimly effective. Unfortunately, though, the segment of the picture centering on Douglas’ Judge Wakefield and the plight of daughter Caroline comes across as somewhat contrived and stagey. One can understand why it was devised, of course: the simplicity involved in dramatizing the futility of current U.S. policy by showing the czar himself come to doubt its value through personal experience is a mightily attractive proposition, and it also provides a major role for a star of Douglas’ calibre to sink his teeth (or in this case, his chin) into. But in the telling, what probably seemed a good idea winds up feeling forced and obvious, and the father-daughter confrontation, while played out well enough, can’t help having an overly tidy TV-movie aura about it. The saving grace, if you’ll pardon the pun, is Topher, who brings his bemused “That ’70s Show” persona to Seth while adding a dollop of arrogance and irresponsibility which would never be at home in his television character. But despite his excellence one can imagine the picture working better if the Douglas-Christensen material were presented within the context of an ordinary, working-class family and the governmental-policy aspects of the plot kept separate from it: going that route would have eliminated the absurdity of Wakefield’s introductory speech as the administration’s new spokesman on drugs (the one point at which the picture truly collapses), and would also have allowed the government’s position to have been portrayed–far more plausibly–as persistently and invincibly oblivious to the realities of the situation.

Apart from this blemish, however, the script is tight and credible, and the acting generally outstanding. Pride of place must go to Del Toro, who paints a marvelous portrait of an essentially principled man caught up in a morass of greed and brutality. Cheadle and the persistently underrated Guzman are not far behind. Zeta-Jones also does extremely well as a woman compelled to enter an underworld she never knew existed (there’s a touch of a gender-reversed Michael Corleone here), and Douglas (with whom, incidentally, she never appears together) is solid, if a bit stolid. Quaid and Bauer are good though not outstanding (Vargas and Milian are much more impressive); but Collins brings an authentic touch of madness to the role of the dangerous Francisco Flores.

As for Soderbergh, he cements his reputation as one of the most talented craftsmen working today, a director who can effortlessly move from the slickness of studio products like “Out of Sight” and “Erin Brockovich” (to which he nonetheless adds a welcome measure of grit) to the wonderful warmth of a film like “King of the Hill” and the harsh genre atmosphere of “The Limey.” Soderbergh has endured stumbles, of course (neither “Kafka” nor “The Underneath” really worked), but overall he’s become one of America’s most reliably gifted helmers. Here he imparts enormous energy, craft and clarity to a plot whose wide canvas would have defeated most filmmakers. It’s characteristic of Hollywood excess, however, that it took him more than $50 million to achieve a look of gritty naturalness which, in the independent realm, he probably could have captured at a fifth the cost. Still, if the presence of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones bring large crowds in to “Traffic,” their substantial salaries will have been worth it.