Ah-CHOO! Oh, crap: Contagion ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  September 17, 2011)


So you say you don’t have enough nightmarish fodder for those racing thoughts that keep you tossing and turning on sweat-soaked sheets every night…what with the economy, the Teabaggers, the pending demise of entitlement programs, the Teabaggers, the rising costs of healthcare, and the Teabaggers? Are you prone to health anxiety? Do you spend hours on wrongdiagnosis.com in a dogged search to confirm your worst fears that your hangnail is surely a symptom of some horrible wasting disease? And there’s no way in hell I can convince you the glass is half-full, not half-empty?

Bubbeleh, have I got a movie for you.

Steven Soderbergh has taken the network narrative formula that drove Traffic, his 2000 Oscar winner about the ‘war’ on drugs, and used it to similar effect in Contagion, a cautionary tale envisioning socio-political upheaval in the wake of a killer pandemic (which epidemiological experts concur is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”).

In an opening montage (entitled “Day 2”), the camera tails the person we assume to be Patient Zero, an American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from an overseas trip, as she kills time at a Chicago airport lounge. She appears to be developing a slight cold. Soderbergh’s camera begins to focus on benign items. A dish of peanuts. A door knob. Paltrow’s hand as she pays her tab. A creeping sense of dread arises. The scenario becomes more troubling when Soderbergh ominously cuts to a succession of individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London who have all suddenly taken extremely ill.

Whatever they have, it works fast. By the time Paltrow is reunited with her kids and her husband (Matt Damon, as the Everyman of the piece), we’ve watched several of the overseas victims collapse and die horribly; in the meantime her sniffles and sore throat escalates to fever, weakness and ultimately a grand mal seizure. Within moments of her arrival at the ER, it’s Mystery Virus 1, Doctors 0. It’s only the beginning of the nightmare. An exponential increase in deaths quickly catches the attention of the authorities, which in turn saddles us with a bevy of new characters to keep track of.

There are the CDC investigators in the U.S. (Kate Winslet is in the field, while her boss Laurence Fishburne holds meddlesome politicos at bay) and Marion Cotillard as a doctor enlisted by the W.H.O. to look into Hong Kong as  possible ground zero. There are the front line researchers doing the lab work to isolate the virus and develop a vaccine (Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin and Elliott Gould).

Even Homeland Security gets into the act; Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is a liaison who suggests possible terrorist scenarios (could this be a “weaponized” virus?). Jude Law portrays a popular activist blogger who claims there is an existing vaccine that works, but that the CDC is withholding distribution for nefarious reasons (something to do with Big Pharma; certainly feasible). Law is also the recipient of a zinger print journalists will be falling over each other to quote : “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

There are many threads to keep track of; fortunately, Soderbergh brings all the ingredients to a gently rolling boil by the film’s denouement without overcooking the ham, as it were. By reining in his powerhouse cast, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if a tad clinical), resulting in an effective and thought-provoking ensemble piece (by contrast, Wolfgang Peterson’s star-studded, similarly-themed 1995 thriller Outbreak plays more like a live action cartoon).

In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the  folks who flocked to theaters last weekend (and helped make Contagion #1 at the box office ) were disappointed by Soderbergh’s unadorned approach . Historically, Soderbergh tends to deliver either sure-fire populist ‘product’ (Out of Sight, Erin Brokovich, Oceans 11 and its sequels), or obscure experiments aimed squarely at the art house hipster crowd (Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble). On occasion, he finds the sweet spot (Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Limey, Traffic, and now…Contagion).

Conceptually, Contagion is actually a closer cousin to The War Game, the 1965 film from director Peter Watkins that depicted, in a very stark and realistic manner, what might happen in a ‘typical’ medium-sized British city immediately following a nuclear strike. While the root cause of the respective civic crises in the two films differs, the resulting impact on the everyday populace is quite similar, and serves as a grim reminder that no matter how “civilized” we fancy ourselves to be, we are but one such catastrophic event away from complete societal breakdown.

Soderbergh’s film raises interesting questions, like, are we prepared for an event like this? If the virus is a new strain, how long would it take  to develop a vaccine? How much longer to manufacture 300 million doses? Surely, not in time to save millions of lives. And speaking of piles of corpses, how do you dispose of them, with one eye on public safety? Who’s first in line to receive the first batch of vaccine? Who decides? And, outside of Soderbergh’s narrative), the CDC isn’t one of those government agencies currently targeted for budget cuts by our Republican and Teabagger buds in Congress…is it? I wish I could reassure fellow hypochondriacs with “It’s only a movie.”  But the best I can do for now is: A gezunt Dir in Pupik!

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