“Blogging is graffiti with punctuation.”
In Steven Soderbergh’s timely new viral thriller, Jude Law (always unlikable) is a blogger who gives the government a huge headache while they attempt to control an epidemic of bat-pig flu (holy crap!) It’s never made clear whether this character really was trying to disseminate the truth (or at least a valid alternative take on the facts) or was just preaching fear so he could cash in and blackmail the CDC, but ultimately Soderbergh is pretty dismissive of the blogosphere.
There are some other more applicable and timeless messages to take away from the film: women who sleep around spread viruses, women married to powerful men are incapable of keeping secrets, and no one really cares when a step-kid dies. Seriously though – there’s also some “bigger picture” commentary about big corporations causing big problems and overly complex bureaucracies crippling the pace of solving the problems. Sometimes this results in minor inconveniences…and sometimes it results in 27 million people dying. C’est la vie.
Jude Law’s blogger is by far the least compelling of the mosaic of characters Soderberg traffics through this global pandemic tale. There’s also Matt Damon (in the most compelling and well-developed story line) as the husband of the alleged patient zero (Gwyneth Paltrow). Apparently immune to the virus, it’s through his eyes that we get a window into the monumental bureaucracy as well as the unraveling of society as panic sets in. Next up is Laurence Fishburne as the head of the CDC who sends Kate Winslet (great in a small but meaty role) to Minneapolis to try to contain the outbreak. In Hong Kong, a WHO epidemiologist (Marion Cottilard, smoking hot and fashionable as always) is sent to trace the origin of the virus. Meanwhile, in the labs, a cunning and brave scientist (Jennifer Ehle) races to create a vaccine.
With the narrative, Soderbergh tries to have his cake and eat it too. He provides cold and clinical commentary on the spread of the virus, the spread of fear, and the race for a cure. But he also attempts to inject some of the subplots with human emotion (most deliberately in Matt Damon’s story, and accidentally through the sheer force of her performance in the Kate Winslet subplot). It doesn’t always work as we never get enough time with any one character to watch them fully develop and become emotionally involved. Some plot lines, like Cotillard’s, never gain traction, though it’s necessary as a vehicle for the over-arching story of tracing the origins of the virus. Because he populates the film with an all-star cast, it’s always engaging, even when the stories aren’t sufficiently fleshed out.
Apart from the smart casting, Soderbergh controls the technical aspects of the film like a master surgeon. The film is expertly paced and moves at a fast clip thanks to the great editing of Steven Mirrione. It’s buoyed by a clever music score from Cliff Martinez as well as great lighting and cinematography done by Soderbergh.
Ultimately, despite some of the films narrative and character flaws, it does an excellent job of tracing how a global pandemic would play out in our modern world, and it makes it crystal clear how the virus spreads (break out that hand sanitizer, folks). It’s not until the final scene where it’s revealed who was the first person to come in contact with the virus and transmit it to poor Gwyneth.
Ah, yes…that’s right…most importantly the film gave me yet another reason not to eat pork. Despite its defaming of blogging, there are too many lessons to be gleaned from Contagion to dismiss it. It’s that rare film that is both entertaining and educational. Cough cough. Oh, I’ve got a killer headache now…
Written by David H. Schleicher