By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” incubated a dread in me months ago when coming attractions first warned of its inevitable breakout in theaters. So it’s good I was able to vaccinate myself against that preconception in just the nick of time. Otherwise I would have been prejudiced against what is certainly not your typical disaster movie.
To be sure, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’s script employs the familiar template to tell its tale of unthinkable cataclysm, wherein the greater catastrophe is mostly told via smaller, personal tragedies the upheaval wreaks. But this variation on the theme is a cut above the usual, preferring an intelligent, responsible approach to the scary possibilities it details.
While not quite as scientifically astute as the medical detective tale Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) wove, like that classic “Contagion” lets the inherent terror speak for itself. There’s no ramping up the horror for horror’s sake. If anything, Mr. Soderbergh’s stab at objectivity could almost be mistaken as curiously dispassionate.
Embodying the overall mood, Matt Damon is stellar as Mitch Emhoff, husband of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff, who, researchers soon come to believe, brought the deadly disease to our shores after a business trip to Hong Kong. And lest matters seem too sterile, she brings a touch of soap opera morality and comeuppance to the scenario.
Count it among the many things Damon’s splendidly drawn everyman has to contend with as he tries to keep his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) and himself safe from the ever-spreading epidemic. Sharing lead player honors, Laurence Fishburne is also quite solid as Dr. Ellis Cheever, head of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.
Other major germ fighters introduced as the drama unfolds include Kate Winslet as field worker Dr. Erin Mears; Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes; and Jennifer Ehle as infectious disease researcher Dr. Ally Hextall. Less traditional in method and a nod to a contemporary twist in how crisis is sometimes addressed is Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede.
Mr. Law is terrific as the quintessence of a character who has increasingly gained potentially dangerous influence in our society. Perched in the shadows of conventional journalism, he is the renegade blogger, the self-professed answer to all controversy who, through no talent other than his ability to win trust, has gained 12 million adherents.
Law’s nomination-worthy media gadfly provides thought-provoking interjection and a smart, novel patter to accompany the lickety-split pace as Soderbergh’s camera adroitly switches among the protagonists. Fine editing intersperses the doings with news reports establishing chronology, the progress of the disease and, alas, the number dead thus far.
Switching every so often to a documentary style chillingly reminiscent of Holocaust footage, a mostly black and white camera records soldiers in protective garb filling long mass graves, and covering them with a white powder. Newscasters flash the statistics. Scientists brief the military and make predictions based on the 1918 flu pandemic.
Long, unruly lines form for disbursement of forsythia, claimed a panacea by Krumwiede, who meets in secret with financial investors seeking input and advice. Also seen from an interestingly hush-hush point of view, Cheever and his band of medical experts scale the walls and jump through the hoops that just may stand in the way of a lifesaving vaccine.
Especially touching in this regard is the sidebar detailing the dedicated Dr. Hextall’s relationship with her physician father. But Mr. Soderbergh never dwells, trusting his divulgences to make their point. It is a dramatic savvy respectful of its audience: a word to the wise is sufficient. The question is, exactly what advice is he hoping to impart?
It’s not as if this were your usual cautionary tale with a definite remedy. After all, the scope of epidemic is just too big to fathom…seemingly impossible to prevent. And yet, small as we may seem, there is a flicker of optimism in the filmmaker’s pronouncements. Miss Winslet’s M.D. informs we touch our faces 3 to 5 times a minute. Gotta stop that!
And Mom was right. Wash your hands for gosh sakes. This movie can put you in full Lady Macbeth mode. But that aside, and much to my surprise, “Contagion” is quite diverting. All of which ruins a closing line I had ready if it were the opposite. Hence, instead of recommending you avoid it like the plague, my advice is that you catch it.
“Contagion,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne and Gwyneth Paltrow. Running time: 105 minutes
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