You don’t have to be an artist to make a movie with a big colorful cast, but only in the rare great ensemble films, like Nashville or Dazed and Confused, do we get the delicious, vibratory feeling that every character on screen is worth a movie of his or her own. Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s dazzling drama about the contemporary drug trade and the tragically misguided ”war” against it, is exactly that kind of movie. It tells many stories at once, and each of them is supple and layered and observant and gripping. The film doesn’t just juggle characters — it zigzags among sinister pockets of addiction, violence, and power, revealing, in its very structure, the hidden yet interlocked levels of a vertically integrated drug society.

Soderbergh, until now, has never worked on this vast a canvas, yet everything in Traffic is urgently lifesize. Written by Stephen Gaghan, who based the film in part on a 1989 British miniseries, Traffic is, in tone, a unique and vivid fusion of docu-drama and sociopolitical soap opera; it’s as eye-opening as yesterday’s headlines but with a tingly panoramic excitement, an unabashedly movie-ish wallop. Soderbergh photographed the picture himself, and watching it, you revel in his intimacy with the actors, the alacrity with which he uses the camera as a kind of psychological divining rod, ripping away each character’s illusions and the audience’s as well.

The action begins in Mexico, which Soderbergh films through filters that turn it into an ironic, sun-drenched heart of darkness. In Tijuana, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), an anonymous border cop, sleepy with the greased-palm dailiness of institutionalized corruption, goes to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who enlists him to help defeat the country’s cocaine cartels. But the cartels are massive bureaucracies of coercion — a de facto shadow government — and even the righteous general is not what he seems.

His ostensible American counterpart is Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio Supreme Court justice chosen by the President to be the new U.S. drug czar. Wakefield steps up to his role with gusto, only to discover that he’s waging war in a void. A typical ”enemy,” it turns out, is none other than his own daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), a high school overachiever who has gotten herself hooked on freebasing cocaine. Statistics about drug use among middle-class teenagers are old news, but as Caroline sits around getting high with her privileged wastrel friends, Traffic lays bare, with galvanizing authenticity, the jaded flavor of their disconnection, their whole ”Why not?” school of dangerous kicks. Caroline begins to slip into a black hole of degradation from which only her father can rescue her. If a drug czar with a crack-addict daughter sounds a bit too blatantly ironic, Soderbergh’s superb staging spins us past any didacticism.

How do drugs get from the cartels to users like Caroline? Through kingpins like Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), a wealthy drug baron who enjoys the life of a suburban honcho in La Jolla, Calif. Early on, Carlos gets arrested, and though this comes as a shock to his pregnant wife, Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who thought he was a legitimate businessman, the real shock is how quickly she adapts to the demands of survival and of saving her husband’s business. Zeta-Jones, in what may be the most lived-in portrayal of ruthless familial loyalty since Al Pacino in The Godfather, shows us the chilling emotional logic of Helena’s movement from posh entitled housewife to desperate underworld executive. Rounding out the cast are Miguel Ferrer, with his dyspeptic talky zest, as Eduardo Ruiz, a mid-level trafficker who is set to be the key witness against Carlos, and Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as undercover DEA agents who have to protect Eduardo before and during the trial. Cheadle and Guzman lend Traffic a bantering Mutt-and-Jeff soul, but if the characters they’re playing are honest cops, the movie reveals that their deep trust in the system is as blind as it is noble.

Traffic, like The Godfather, is a memorable demonstration of the notion that crime, while it may be sin, is fundamentally big business. Watching the film, we’re confronted, both as drama and as cultural revelation, with the dirty capitalistic secret of the drug war: that when drugs are wired into a society’s central nervous system, that society will behave, collectively, in as clawing and amoral a fashion as any addict. People want the stuff, they will pay for it, and their money provides the drug lords with the vicious power to keep the stuff out there. As the film presents it, the propulsive, symbiotic connection between supply and demand is more forceful than any attempt to halt its flow.

There isn’t a bit player in Traffic who makes a false move. Douglas strikes forceful notes of anger and impotent dismay, and newcomer Erika Christensen, as his daughter, has a dreamy willfulness that melts through adolescent clichés (and addict clichés, too). As the hangdog Javier, a man trying to lift himself out of a torpor of self-disgust, Benicio Del Toro, haunting in his understatement, becomes the film’s quietly awakening moral center. Still, the most triumphant performance here is Soderbergh’s. With Traffic, he has made the rare Hollywood epic that dares to entertain an audience by engaging the world.