In Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is asked by a deputy from the Department of Homeland Security (Enrico Colantoni) if the growing pandemic could be a terrorist attack. “There’s no need to weaponize the bird flu,” Cheever calmly responds. “The birds are doing that.” Similarly, Soderbergh knows there’s no need to sensationalize a pandemic. The pandemic is already terrifying on its own. By realistically depicting the response to the rampant spread of an unknown virus, Soderbergh makes us feel the intensity and the helplessness of the situation. But in attempting to capture as many sides of the story as possible, some characters become one-dimensional, plotlines fizzle out, and unintentional xenophobia overshadows the intended misophobia.
Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a slight cough as she waits in a Chicago airport to go home to Minneapolis and be with her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and son Clark (Griffin Kane). By the following afternoon, she’s dead from an unknown cause. Similar cases begin appearing in Hong Kong and London. New clusters of the infected start growing over the course of the week and CDC investigator Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) heads to Minneapolis to investigate Emhoff’s death and the city’s growing virus cluster while World Health Organization investigator Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) heads to China to track the virus’ origin. Meanwhile, at the CDC, doctors Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demitri Martin) attempt to grow the virus in a lab so they can begin testing vaccines. Finally, freelance blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) seizes the opportunity to report the story and then seizes a far more villainous opportunity as he preys upon fear and paranoia to feed his messiah complex.
In its first hour, Contagion masterfully balances all of these plotlines to create a fast-paced and serious-minded scenario that will leave you aching to douse yourself in hand sanitizer. We see the citizen perspective as Mitch, who is immune to the virus, tries to protect his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) from not only the virus, but the disintegration of society and the desperation of mobs. The CDC perspective runs with the fast pace of the film as we see both the strengths and the weaknesses of the organization. Orantes’ plotline keeps the story worldwide and out of the bounds of “USA Here to Save the Day”, and Krumwiede’s storyline begins in a strong place as someone outside the bounds of the mainstream media and traditional journalism tries to uncover what the health organizations are hiding.
But not all of the plotlines remain healthy. Orantes’ investigation leads her to be lied to by Chinese officials, she’s abducted by her translator and taken to his village so “they’ll be at the head of the line for the vaccine,” and it’s pretty clear from the outset that the virus originated in China because of the country’s non-existent health codes. The plotline fizzles out because it becomes an afterthought in the script, it doesn’t contribute to the overall narrative or themes, and since all of the Asian characters are sneaky and duplicitous (even if their motives are occasionally sympathetic), the whole endeavor smacks of xenophobia.
The film also runs into trouble with Krumwiede. Contagion seems to hate the Internet more than our inability to quickly deal with a pandemic. Every time someone mentions the Internet, it’s nothing but a source for rumor and inaccuracies. Krumwiede’s work not only represents both these qualities (although he also finds some truth), but then he becomes a full-on villain rather than a misguided person who believes he’s in the right. When he’s hailed as a prophet and we see posters of him being put up in the street, it serves as a further distraction because you’re left wondering, “Who had the time and resources during a pandemic to make posters and then put them up around London?”
These shortcomings stand-out because Soderbergh does such a tremendous job of depicting the situation as realistically as possible. There are some reasonable concessions like scientists having to bend the rules in order to speed up their time table on finding a cure, but it’s an acceptable narrative shortcut because showing human trials for the vaccine would slow the momentum. But when Cheever is showing a model of the virus on screen, it’s a simplistic, no-frills image. There are no fancy graphics or touch-screens. The 3D model almost looks old-fashioned but it’s as boiled down as it needs to be in order to make its impact.
The same goes for Contagion. We don’t need a big, operatic music cues when we have the pulse-pounding, nerve-rattling clock-tick of Cliff Martinez’s brilliant score. We don’t need a grand performance filled with big actions when we have smart performances that show the desperation of people trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. We don’t need a fancy CGI zoom-in to an infected person’s blood stream to see the virus attacking their cells when a close-up on someone touching a handrail or their face is far more effective. It’s only when the film loses the authenticity of a plotline or a character’s motives that Soderbergh’s tightly-constructed vice-grip begins to weaken. Contagion is at its best when it doesn’t rely on artificial tricks to convey an all-too-real fear.