Saturday Night At The Movies --- Ahhh-CHOO!! Oh, crap: "Contagion"

Saturday Night At The Movies

Ahhh-CHOO!! Oh, crap.

By Dennis Hartley

Graffiti with punctuation: Jude Law in Contagion

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 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/pseudo-Cinema verite formula that propelled Traffic, his 2000 Oscar winner about the ‘war’ on drugs, and applied it to similar effect in Contagion, a cautionary tale that envisions profound socio-political upheaval in the wake of a major killer pandemic (which most epidemiological experts seem to concur is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”). In an opening montage (teasingly entitled as “Day 2”), the camera tails the person we assume to be our Patient Zero, an American businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from an overseas trip, as she kills time at a Chicago airport lounge, waiting for her final connecting flight home. She appears to be developing a slight cold. Soderbergh’s camera starts to linger on seemingly inconsequential close-ups, just long enough to pique our interest. 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 these people have ‘got’, 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 quite 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 the meddlesome politicos at bay) and Marion Cotillard playing a doctor enlisted by the W.H.O. to look into Hong Kong as the 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 tosses out a couple possible terrorist scenarios (could this be a “weaponized” virus?). Jude Law portrays an activist blogger with a large following, 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 that I am sure print journalists will be falling over each other to quote ad nauseum; Gould’s doctor brushes him off with “A blog isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.”

There are a great number of threads to keep track of in Contagion; fortunately, Soderbergh knows exactly how to bring 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 just enough, and working from a screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) that largely eschews melodrama, Soderbergh keeps it real (if a tad clinical at times), resulting in an effective and thought-provoking ensemble piece (by contrast, Wolfgang Peterson’s similarly star-studded 1995 thriller Outbreak plays more like an action cartoon). In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of those folks who flocked to theatres last weekend (and helped make Contagion #1 at the box office for its opening week) were ultimately disappointed by Soderbergh’s relatively unadorned approach to the subject matter. 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 middle ground (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 also raises interesting questions, like, are we prepared for an event like this? If the virus were to be a new strain, how long would it take, realistically, to develop a vaccine? How much longer would it take to manufacture 300 million doses (or perhaps a smaller number, give or take the possible attrition rate of, say for the sake of argument, 100 million who might die from the disease by the time the medicine is available). And speaking of piles of corpses, how do you dispose of them, with one eye on public safety? Who gets to be first in line to receive the first batch of vaccine? Who decides? And, outside of Soderbergh’s narrative (just to satisfy my own curiosity), the CDC isn’t one of those pesky government agencies currently targeted for budget cuts by our Republican and Teabagger buds in Congress…is it? I wish I could reassure myself and fellow hypochondriacs with “It’s only a movie.” But I can’t. The best I can do for now is: A gezunt Dir in Pupik! And, er, pleasant dreams.