Remember the H1N1 “outbreak” that happened in 2009? Wasn’t that stupid? I sure thought so. While everyone else was passing around hand sanitizer and avoiding public places I was the one ranting about how the whole thing was a paranoid fantasy created by the media. My stump speech was that this was SARS, Bird Flu, West Nile, Mad Cow, Monkey Pox, Anthrax, and killer bees all over again and that this would turn out to be every bit as non-apocalyptic as all those “outbreaks.” As it turned out I was completely right about this, H1N1 passed and seemed like just another case of the media crying wolf. Or was it? Maybe the relatively sedate effects of the H1N1 virus was simply the result of CDC doing its job effectively. Maybe my “don’t panic over this nonsense” attitude would have proven less constructive if the wolf ever did arrive to hunt for Peter. The new Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, is about a situation where a metaphorical wolf really has indeed arrived and the portrait it paints is frightening enough to make the staunchest skeptic consider buying some survival supplies.
The film begins with a businesswoman named Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) after a business trip to Hong Kong feeling feverish. A day later she collapses, seizes and dies. It soon becomes apparent that this death was connected to a handful of other deaths among people who had recently been in Hong Kong of a strange flu-like disease that is spreading rapidly. We see the spread of this epidemic from multiple perspectives. We stick with Mitch and his family in order to see the events from the perspective of the average citizen who must struggle to keep his surviving family members healthy through the disaster and the hysteria that follows it. We also see it from the perspective of a conpirocy minded (and perhaps corrupt) blogger named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) who to some extent represents both the media and the private sector’s response to the disaster. Finally we see how the CDC and the upper echelons of the government respond to the disaster through the eyes Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a leading scientist who’s spearheading the efforts to contain the outbreak.
In case you haven’t noticed, Contagion has a tremendous number of star actors in it. Over the course of the film we get appearances by Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta (as himself). That’s a murderer’s row on Ocean’s 11 levels; the ten people I listed above have a combined fifteen Oscar nominations to their credit (sixteen if you want to include Damon’s screenwriting exploits) and three wins. The ability to assemble star studded casts has become so consistent in the filmmaking of Steven Soderbergh that it can almost be considered a stylistic trait, after all there are certainly other directors with reputations that could allow for similar casting coups, but such ensembles do not show up as consistently in the filmographies of many other directors. I should be noted that none of this feels like stunt casting, nor do any of these actors seem to have been shoehorned into the film just to help the film’s opening weekend. Almost all of them do feel like they’ve been chosen wisely for their parts. What’s more they conduct themselves as actors in the movie and not movie stars, they feel like people doing their jobs or surviving a tough situation, not like handsome and glitzy millionaires.
Though the film has a large ensemble and doesn’t focus on any central character, this is not really an example of “hyperlink” cinema; the stories do not intersect through some sort of cosmic coincidence and the multiple storylines do not feel like a film construction. The film also isn’t really a Hollywood thriller like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film Outbreak was. At its heart Contagion is simply a procedural. It shows in vivid detail what kind of havoc an outbreak like this could wreak, and how institutions and society would respond and it depicts both with what appears to be immense realism. Of course I can’t fully vogue for the film’s accuracy, I don’t work for the CDC after all, but it certainly seemed convincing in its depiction of flawed but functioning institutions run by flawed but competent and well intentioned people. This sense of realism is bolstered by the film’s set and costume design, which seem cheap and earthly compared to the expensively décored hospitals and government offices that you’d see in lesser Hollywood movies and TV series. The film’s setting is also remarkably timely and topical; a lot of these movies might have started with a perfunctory “in a not too distant future” card in order fudge reality a little, but this movie seems to take place right now, and there are a number of very current references to our modern technological and media environment.
If I had any complaint about the movie it would probably be the Jude Law character. I understand why Soderbergh would want to highlight some of the less savory elements that would arise in a crisis like this, but this character seemed a little bit on the nose to me. What’s more I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the film’s negative stance on blogging, which one character proudly describes as “graffiti with punctuation.” I don’t know of any bloggers who are popular enough to act as a rabble rouser on the level of this character and it would seem to me that people in the traditional media like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be far more likely to behave like that. That said, I did like the way Jude Law portrayed the character and I do respect that somebody had to fill this role, I just wish they’d added a little nuance to the proceedings.
It’s not particularly easy to sum up my feelings about Contagion. It’s a movie that I have a lot of respect for and few complaints about. I certainly recommended it as a film worth seeing and generally enjoyed watching it. However, in spite of the movie’s many strengths it lacked a certain spark of excellence that would have put it above the ranks of “very respectable” and into the ranks of true greatness that other Soderbergh dramas like Traffic and Che inhabit. I suppose the problem is that it is such a procedural at its core that it feels more like a simulation than a moving story. Still, coming off a particularly mind-numbing summer movie season I’m glad to finally be seeing well thought out and down to earth films from major filmmakers coming to theaters and Contagion fits that bill.
***1/2 out of Four