From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected]
Steven Soderbergh has become a master of ensemble films that use a multinational cast to tell a global story. The deadly serious Contagion is that kind of story, and I think it works better than Soderbergh’s earlier film, Traffic, which had a more preachy tone.
It also works on a much deeper level than Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. The players in the Ocean’s series are likable scoundrels doing their starring things at casinos in Las Vegas and Europe. Contagion is also populated with a cast of fine actors, but they must embody the ways the humblest of us are all linked to each other for possible ill.
Contagion conveys a message about the fact that our interactions within the newly “global” world can be newly treacherous. Its vehicle is a disease created by a mutation among the cells of a bat and a pig, a combination enabled by global exploitation of the environment. The lethal mix spreads from Asia to the rest of the human world through a single business executive/carrier played by Gweneth Paltrow — in both haggard and glowing form.
Soderbergh’s camera follows Paltrow from her foreign business trip home to Minneapolis, by way of a stopover in Chicago, focusing on everything she touches en route, including a number of human beings. They all get sick, and many dieas the audience is led through the minuscule human contacts that conspire together to create a global pandemic.
Other kinds of contagion are instigated by the rapid spread of Paltrow’s disease. One is the networked responses of international political entities as they seek to protect themselves from panic among their constituents. Their behavior builds into maladies of denial that make things worse.
And then there is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta — a good government organization as embodied by its director, Dr. Ellis Cheever, played by Laurence Fishburne. At the first sign of the pandemic, Cheever sends a couple of his outstanding scientists into action. Dr. Kate Mears, played with restraint by Kate Winslet, goes to trace the course of the disease in Minneapolis. And Dr. Ally Hextall, played with equal restraint, by Jennifer Ehle, try to map out the gene and develop a vaccine in Atlanta.
The other outstanding civil servant in the film is a World Health Organization epidemiologist from Switzerland, Dr. Leonara Orantes — also played without melodrama by the French actress, Marion Cotillard. It may be one sign of the moral earnestness of Soderbergh’s enterprise that he gives these central scientific roles to women. As best I could tell from a diversity web page from the CDC, less than a third are female. Moreover, I saw only one African-American (he was not the director as in the movie).
The last ring of contagion in Soderbergh’s Contagion is the social network. The carrier of the most vicious social disease initiated by the crisis is a British journalist/blogger who turns to profiting from his blog as he is denied access by a San Francisco newspaper to air his suspicions about the disease. He is played with sly sliminess by Jude Law. (By the way, Law had a falsely crooked front tooth added to his mouth for his role — so as to appear more British. You know, the bad teeth?)
Contagion’s opening sequences show that Soderbergh has done his research on the science of pandemics very well. And he can make a truly suspenseful film about disease. But his movie eventually lurches into apocalypse by imaging public reaction in scenes of streets lined with uncollected garbage, lawless mobs ransacking drugstores, and face-masked police burying bodies in mass graves.
None of this claptrap is as scary as the spread of disease itself through far less violent human behaviors. I have bronchitis, which has been causing me to cough a lot in these last hot, humid days. Luckily, I brought a big supply of Hall’s mentho-lyptis to the theater when I saw Contagion. Still, I coughed a couple of times, and other movie-goers shot menacing glances in my direction. And where was my hand sanitizer? I was afraid to go to the bathroom after the show. Now, that was scary!