Contagion is a biohazard thriller that shows off the considerable talents of its occasionally infuriating director, Steven Soderbergh, to a degree rarely seen since the film that won him his Oscar, Traffic, back in 2000.
As in Traffic, Soderbergh deals with nonstop tension and harrowing situations with a vivid, near-documentary style. Dialogue occasionally overlaps and the more fortunate actors (particularly Matt Damon) often look doughy and pale. As for the less fortunate performers, well…this is a film about a lethal virus that takes control of and kills its victims within a couple of days. More than half a dozen Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated actors appear — including Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Marion Cotillard. Not all of them make it to the end.
Contagion is similar to Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak, which arrived in a mid-90s period during which much of popular culture was suffused with a terror of contagious diseases (the Ebola virus was the hottest name in infection). The most memorable moment in Outbreak (which Soderbergh can’t quite find an answer to) is one in which moviegoers — cleverly placed to make the audience think of itself — start infecting each other with coughs as animation shows the alarming progress of each virus-packed exhalation.
But Outbreak eventually settled into the comfortable patterns of a rote thriller, whereas Contagion sticks to a more sober approach. It explores the social consequences of a pandemic that kills more than three million Americans in the first 30 days and is compared onscreen to the 1918 influenza that may have killed as much as one percent of the world population.
Grim stuff, and even as the movie ends (with an unexpectedly beautiful moment) it isn’t quite clear what the point of all the suffering Soderbergh depicts might be. Is this a cautionary tale? Not especially; the virus gets started because of a chance transmission of disease from a bat to a pig to a person. There isn’t much we can do about that. Is it a whodunnit? Again, not really. Nor is Contagion a horror film, scary though it is. The deaths of important characters don’t provide catharsis or voyeuristic thrills, and though a central character is morally compromised, this information is presented in an off-hand way, not as a kind of justification for a grisly fate.
Yet the film has a propulsive power thanks to Soderbergh’s tight grip on realism and his (sparing) use of a pulsing synthesizer score. When humanity is really up against it, what will we do? The answer, according to Soderbergh and his sharp screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, is a dark one. Some people will seek profit through fraud; others will loot and riot in pursuit of any conceivable cure, or merely to survive. There is a telling scene in which Damon’s character calls 911 after witnessing an armed break-in at a neighbor’s house: Due to the volume of calls, he gets stuck in a phone tree. Those who followed the story of the recent looting in Britain will note that, at a moment when the rule of law has broken down, ordinarily reliable services like an emergency hotline quickly become useless.
The one slightly silly element of an otherwise gripping and credible film is that Soderbergh must find himself a villain and decides, as millions perish, that it should be…a blogger? The scribbler in question (Jude Law) is a failed freelance journalist in San Francisco who is the first to raise the alarm about the virus when he posts video of a man collapsing on a bus. This makes his blogging (which, we are told in a memorable quip, is not writing but “graffiti with punctuation”) a worldwide sensation and he quickly leverages his status to promote a quack cure for the virus that stands to vastly enrich him.
Moreover, as you’d expect from Soderbergh, an out-there liberal who a couple of years ago filmed a loving four-hour homage to Che Guevara, there is a dig against the military, though it’s fairly mild by Hollywood standards. A high-ranking officer (Bryan Cranston) in Washington distracts scientists trying to learn more about the virus by speculating that it might have been created and spread by terrorists. Soderbergh doesn’t dedicate a lot of energy to vilifying him, though.
More surprising is that such a committed liberal as Soderbergh should use the movie to land several hard punches against unions. We’re repeatedly told that during the pandemic the nurses union, the Teamsters, and even the union of funeral-home employees are refusing to do their jobs. It’s not hard to believe that unions would, as they have throughout the financial crisis, consider themselves above sharing in a generalized pain, but one wonders: Where did this animosity come from? In addition to big studio productions like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s movies, Soderbergh has also filmed several micro-budget movies in which union costs would have been a major hindrance. If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, then a union buster, evidently, is an artist who has tried to work around the Teamsters.