I’ve had this infection on my ankle that has flared up on and off for the past month. After several cycles through the healthcare system, I am finally getting in front of it. This took place in a perfect world and it still took an entire month. I can’t imagine what a fast killing easy to catch global epidemic would do to this perfect world. But director Steven Soderbergh sure can.
In Contagion, Soderbergh and original screenplay writer Scott Burns shows us chronologically (with one little twist) the life of a killer hybrid virus with familiar echoes of SARS and swine flu and reminders of the hygiene protocols given by the President that followed (and subsequently worked). The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow in Hong Kong on the phone with her lover who she was just with (uncredited but voiced by Soderbergh). Paltrow’s character is married to Matt Damon’s, and her moral transgression has made her expendable. From here she travels, and we are introduced to several continuing story lines that unfold slowly but deliberately as the virus spreads worldwide. Soderbergh definitely spent much time with director of photography Peter Andrews (wink wink) for close up shots of people exchanging handshakes, coffee cup lids, bus handrails, that ratcheted up the ‘uh-oh’ factor as government agencies scramble.
Fun Fact: This film holds the record for number of obligatory shots of someone walking with great purpose into some cookie-cutter government facility with a large parking lot and tinted glass on the building.
Though this film seems big budget, with an A-list cast, the movie has more of a Soderbergh passion project feel driven by characters and great photography rather than Hollywood sensationalism. The subject matter seems grandiose and privy to scenes featuring masses of humanity rioting and burning, but that is not this film. People die, along with some of the A-listers, and there are breakdowns in the system, but it is a controlled demolition, like bringing down a derelict high-rise. Though the pacing gets sluggish in the middle, the film is effective in illustrating from the top how such a disaster is dealt with, from finding out what it is to the small miracles necessary to find a cure.
Matt Damon stands out as a father just trying to keep it together. Jude Law is great as the conniving and opportunistic conspiracy troller; the TV interview scene with him was particularly well done. I am not really sure what Kate Winslet’s part in the film is, other than a big name ‘bait and switch’ (best I can elaborate without spoiling).
Bottom line: if you are looking for ‘Outbreak’, then just watch that again.
Soderbergh has pulled the big names/small project card before, the story just happens to occur on a global scale that effects everyone, not just some sheik indie microcosm of society. This is a great story- Damon’s pathos, Fishburne’s dignified resolve, and great cinematography that play on social media and multi governmental agency gerrymandering. Soderbergh deserves a hearty handshake. Remember to wash up.