Contagion

Some people would do anything for their blog...

 
“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.
 

Wait...where are you taking me? The audience hardly got to know me!

 
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…
 
 
 
 
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7 comments on “Contagion

  1. Dianne Glave says:

    Initially, I wanted to jump all over the gender issue but even Laurence Fishburne’s character, a male character, was both flawed and heroic. At least three of the women, were given positive treatment in the film. I hardly recognize myself: I’m giving a director credit even though the negative depictions of women really bugged me.

    Dianne – I found all of the (unintentional) subtexts about gender and even race very interesting in the film. However, Soderberg did a good job showing the humanity of those trying to do what was right (as evidenced in the characters played by Fishburne, Winslet, Cotillard and Ehle). –DHS

    • Anonymous says:

      you know, people are so complex and that came out in the film so i’m cutting contagion some slack!

      It kinda reminded me of Paul Haggis’ Crash, where every character had exactly two sides. –DHS

  2. ccyager says:

    I’m planning to see this film with a friend who’s a scientist in industrial hygiene, i.e. OSHA and state health departments, etc. I don’t know which will be more fun: the film or her reaction to it. The film sounds like a horror thriller — would “The Andromeda Strain” be an apt comparison?

    Oh, I’d love to hear that person’s take on it! Yes – The Andromeda Strain is an apt comparison, just take out the sci-fi portion. Really it’s more closely akin to Soderberg’s own Traffic. –DHS

    • ccyager says:

      Hi, David,

      My friend and I finally saw this movie yesterday. She’s got a Masters in Public Health and I was curious about how she’d react to it. She loved it! She thought every person on the planet should see it because the filmmakers were so accurate about what happens in such a pandemic. She loved that it began on day 2 with patient 2 (Paltrow) and not day 1 — patient zero, or the index patient as Public Health people call the first human who connects the animal virus to humans, is rarely known because he or she usually does not get sick, just as in this movie the index patient did not get sick. The process of developing a vaccine can be even more maddening — they’re still trying with HIV — and I found it interesting to see how each character’s experience flows into the knowledge pool that the researchers use. She loved also that there was a researcher who did NOT destroy his sample — she said there’s always at least one — and went on to provide some crucial information as a result. As for the blogger, we are both bloggers ourselves, and agreed that in movies long ago (actually not that long ago) he would have been a newspaper reporter or TV journalist. She loved that they arrested him for the very things he was accusing people at the CDC of doing, especially enriching himself as a result of spreading false information. On a personal note, I stopped her in her tracks as we left the theater with the comment that if only a live vaccine were available, I would not be able to take it, like thousands of others with compromised immune systems. This raised some interesting thoughts — what would my doctor advise? Would he say, given the choice of contracting the disease or taking the vaccine and possibly not contracting it (50-50 chance, say), to take the vaccine? What she told me would most likely happen is that I would be put in strict quarantine for a minimum of 6 months. Wow.

      It wasn’t an influenza virus that they were dealing with in the movie. All they knew was that it was a virus that matched aspects of bat and pig viruses that they’d seen. They compared it to Spanish flu as a novel virus and pandemic but it wasn’t a flu virus.

      The time required to develop a vaccine, manufacture it and distribute it to the general population was rather brilliantly illustrated as a huge obstacle to overcome in the movie (good for the screenwriter!!!). My friend said it was accurate. Which is why the Jennifer Ehle doctor injected herself to test vaccine#57. Under those circumstances, it’s the only way to sidestep the testing process completely. I thought this was actually quite brilliant. I love Ehle anyway. Damon’s immunity to the virus helped him but only him, and that’s usually the case with these things — I thought that was interesting. As for women sleeping around spreading viruses, ahem, so do men. The poignant tragedy of Paltrow’s character is that she picked up such a lethal bug and spread it to strangers, co-workers and loved ones when she was probably the kind of person who would have been horrified to have done such a thing…if she’d lived.

      I say bravo to Soderbergh and his screenwriter for a fine film!

      Cinda

      Cinda – awesome! I’m glad to hear the film was so accurate in its depictions. They must’ve done excellent research. –DHS

  3. Anonymous says:

    yeah, it’s got some shades of andromeda strain. outbreak too with dustin hoffman and morgan freeman. though soderbergh is striving for a bit of high brow in the icky i no like germs gross-out.

    Outbreak was a fun movie and a good comparison here, though I think Contagion is a far more accomplished film. –DHS

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    “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…”

    True enough David, and at times the clinical presentation grows wearsome. But in large measure it’s ariveting film with Bolero-like escalation, and for me the best of Soderbergh’s most recent output. You’ve as always penned a wonderful piece here, which I can mostly agree with.

    I went with 4/5 here.

    Sam, I think Soderberg might be hitting his stride again, as this comes on the heels of The Informant! (which I know many did not care for, but I found delightfully Coen-esque). –DHS

  5. The “Blogger” line in the film had me laughing. I thoroughly enjoyed this work of Soderbergh’s myself. A fantastic write up sir!

    Who knew blogging could be so contagious? Sorry for the bad pun, I couldn’t resist. –DHS

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