Review: Contagion (2011)



Steven Soderbergh
Scott Z. Burns
105 min.
Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan
MPAA Rating
PG-13 for disturbing content and some language

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What is it about the disaster film genre that draws big names to the table. I’d like to think director Steven Soderbergh is responsible for bringing together such a wonderful cast, but films like Contagion are naturally appealing to celebrated stars even when the person filming the production isn’t a world class filmmaker like Soderbergh.

A hugely talented cast step into this Scott Z. Burns-penned drama about a health pandemic that threatens to decimate large portions of the world’s population if it isn’t quickly vaccinated. We follow some impressive actors as they intermingle in a intensely threaded plot that is more informative than emotional.

Many of the actors never meet on screen, relying on phone conversations or wholly unrelated plot lines to keep them distanced. Matt Damon takes the lead as caring husband and father Mitch Emhoff whose wife, Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts some mysterious form of encephalitus while traveling in Hong Kong. She makes a brief layover in Chicago before returning home where she succumbs to her sickness, taking their young son with her. Aggrieved, but unaffected by the virus, Mitch goes to great lengths to protect his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from sharing a similar fate. It this story that carries most of the film’s more emotional moments.

Contagion goes into great detail about the nuts and bolts of research, reaction and vaccine development as it relates to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, headed in this film by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne); and the World Health Organization (WHO), embodied in researcher Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard). While the WHO sends Orantes to Hong Kong to seek the origins of the virus, the CDC is embroiled in a fight to isolate and immunize the population against the virus. Knowing terminology and receiving an explanation and exemplification of containment procedures is one of the film’s more thoroughly researched and informative aspects.

There are five distinct storylines at play in Contagion and Burns’ script does a terrific job keeping them sorted out. Soderbergh’s ability to juggle between events keeps the audience involved in the action and creates a credible timeline of events that never confuses us.

Damon, Fishburne and Cotillard do solid jobs at the heads of their three storylines while the other two plot leaders, Kate Winslet, as a field agent sent to Minnesota to organize contamination protocols and do ground research; and Jude Law as a sleazy, money-hungry blogger benefiting financially from the pandemic; are the more complex characters in the film.

Winslet’s no nonsense approach to her character, confident in her knowledge, but inexperienced in social interaction, gives the audience a quick rundown of epidemic epistemology and battles bureaucratic red tape as she tries to ensure public safety is supported above petty politics. Even though Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears is a socially awkward professional, subtle vocal inflections and world weary responses endear her to the viewer.

And as much as you care for and appreciate Dr. Mears, you loathe and revile Law’s oily Alan Krumwiede. Predicating his success on the backs of the dying, Krumwiede uses his blog as a springboard for financial stability, profiting off of questionably effective medical treatments to bolster pharmaceutical sales while castigating the government for its slow response by tying them to drug company interests. His words and actions often create more distrust, panic and death than any uneducated citizen spreading an infectious disease.

And it’s the human tendency towards panic and self-preservation that drive a number of the film’s more graphic and intense situations. While standing in line for a dose of the purported miracle drug Krumwiede has been hocking, an announcement that supplies were low and only 50 doses would be handed out that day, a rush on the counter begins and a panic-stricken mob sets off a series of disturbing reflections on human falibility.

One of the things Soderbergh does tremendously well with his films is paint vivid portraits of real people facing real and dangerous situations. As in Traffic, Contagion doesn’t rest idly while it creates action-heavy events that tease and titillate the audience. He isn’t looking to generate a rise from the viewer, he wants to educate them to the darker elements of society that are often glossed over in exposition-heavy dramas like Outbreak where the end result is down-to-the-wire excitement as a cure is found. Here, the cure is found, but at a reasonably credible pace and despite a rash of deaths, both star and unknown alike. You don’t get thrills, excitement or some halo-illuminated climax. The vaccine is created, manufactured and the laborious process of distributing it to the public begins, leaving a lengthy series of examinations, ruminations and resolutions to unfold.

The quietest performance in the film, that by Jennifer Ehle as the vaccine’s lead researcher Dr. Ally Hextall, is its most powerful. Sitting in silence in an environmentally-controlled lab with partner Dr. David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin) and with assistance from noted immunologist Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), she stoically searches for a simple serum that may not restore life, but will save them. She does her work with passion, dedication and humility. And when she seeks out her father, dying in an overcrowded hospital, to tell him of her success, that dignity becomes a breakthrough moment for the film. It isn’t the politicians, the military or the bureaucrats that save lives, it’s the workers in the trenches who never rest, never relent, never seek praise who define human adversity. Strength in the face of overwhelming odds has seldom been better personified.

A good balance between sentimentality, psychological exploration, and the examination of cause, effect and resolution would have proven a formidable triumvirate. There are a handful of scenes where emotion is heavily favored, but the film has a somewhat mechanical approach to the events and while it’s nice to be informed, sometimes the most exciting, relatable element of the disaster genre is the ability of the audience to find a measure of cathartic release. Although Soderbergh has gone to great lengths to distance this film from its more demonized forbares, that distance may have severed the most valuable connection a filmmaker has to his audience.
Review Written
September 13, 2011

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