Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Sanaa Lathan
Scott Z. Burns
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- Contagion: How A Virus Changes The World
Regardless of where on the political spectrum you find yourself, there's little denying that a film centered squarely in the world of global fear-mongering and bureaucratic bulls*** amidst tragedy is a well timed film.
Contagion, the 22nd film in 22 years from Steven Soderbergh, travels the world to paint a pretty ugly portrait of humanity's response to a global epidemic that gets kicked off when business exec Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home from a business trip/rendezvous with a whole lot more than a souvenir for her son Clark (Griffin Kane). The scene of Beth returning home runs parallel in the film's opening moments with rapid-fire shots of men and women from around the global in similar circumstances to varying degrees.
Soderbergh doesn't waste any time in picking up the action in Contagion, and before long narcissistic jerk # 1, Alan Krumwiede (think "crumb-weedy"), has taken to his blog called "Truth Serum Now" with increasingly hyped and histrionic reports about this new "virus" including his own alleged cure, an herb called Forsythia. Just as rapidly, the Centers for Disease Control has deputy director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) on the case along with investigator Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and a pair of CDC docs Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin). Across the globe, the World Health Organization is exploring the film's Hong Kong connection courtesy of Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard).
Soderbergh has railed against irresponsible journalism before, but he's relentless here in painting a portrait of Krumwiede's brand of investigative journalism as nothing less than an actor of global terrorism. As portrayed with mischievous glee by Jude Law, Alan Krumwiede is a journalistic outsider frequently dismissed by his local San Francisco newspaper and yet determined to make a name for himself doing whatever it takes. While Soderbergh isn't exactly kind to the governments that too often play political games at the expense of lives, it's clear that Soderbergh's, along with that of screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, is taking a sociological angle while deconstructing how a massive healthcare epidemic causes societies globally to implode upon themselves (Though, in all honesty, the majority of the self-created implosions in the film are based squarely in the U.S.).
Soderbergh and Burns create a grim picture of how such an epidemic can create a stranglehold on how society functions, and those who remember the early days of the HIV/AIDS hysteria will cringe with uncomfortable familiarity at some of the lines and situations put on display in the film's opening third.
This is not to say that all is lost and hopeless in Contagion, despite its quietly ominous tone and stark attitudes about journalism and government coupled with individual and communal greed. The film has moments of selfless heroism ranging from a silent sacrifice by Winslet's Mears to the life-changing research work by Ally Hextall, played with terrific energy and empathy by Jennifer Ehle. Soderbergh has never been one for over-hyped dramatics, so even the most dramatic storylines and characters are played with a refreshingly natural humanism.
Matt Damon gives one of his most satisfying performances yet as the husband to Beth Emhoff whose increasing sense of paranoia bout the virus is overpowered by his determination to protect his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron). Winslet adds a tremendous emotional depth to the film, something otherwise noticeably lacking, as an investigator whose intelligence is matched by her passion and determination. John Hawkes shines in what could have easily been a throwaway role as a janitor for the CDC who is determined to provide as best he can for his son.
While it's admirable that Soderbergh doesn't allow Contagion to get bogged down in unnecessarily dramatic hype, there are times in the film when that lack of emotional connection sabotages one's ability to connect more deeply with the film despite its obviously catastrophic implications. On an intellectual level, there's no denying the overwhelming and mind-numbing nature of the death of millions. It's just that Contagion would have been even more effective had Soderbergh created deeper connections even if only with a handful of central characters. Instead, we're left to wonder if Contagion isn't just one huge morality play as the entire epidemic kicks off with one less than faithful woman and is allowed to snowball into global communities thanks to irresponsible journalism, unresponsive or slow responding governments (Katrina, anyone?) and societies that resort to chaos and violence in the midst of the fear.
It could happen. Soderbergh knows it could happen.
Frequent Soderbergh collaborators include composer Cliff Martinez and editor Stephen Mirrione, who've clearly learned how to match Soderbergh's more thoughtful approach to filmmaking. Soderbergh lenses the film himself, affording the film a rather grey and dreary look that avoids boldness in favor of simplicity and fading.
At 105 minutes, Contagion is one of those few films that actually feels as if it might move along a bit too quickly. Soderbergh tries to pack a lot into the picture, and the sheer massiveness of the picture feels a tad rushed at times and more efficient than effective. That said, a weak Soderbergh flick is still vastly better than the majority of filmmakers today and Contagion is a thought-provoking and unnerving film that will have you shaking just a bit inside the very next time someone next to you lets out with a really loud cough.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic