Saturday, September 17, 2011


2011, PG-13, 106 min.
IMDB says... A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.

The 73rd Virgin says... The worldwide disaster flick must be the hardest kind of movie to make. Where do you insert small scale human drama without causing half of humanity to roll its eyes while the other half tears up? Where and how to insert the inevitable "guy in the white lab coat" who looks into the middle distance, or into a monitor, and mouths quasi-science for the audience so they can appreciate how the future of humanity is at stake. Add to that, how do you do it all when the agent of doom is a virus, a hand shake, a moist bus rail, a credit card?

My youth is filled with god-awful examples of how not to do it. Without concentrating I can think of Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Raymond Burr, ad nauseum standing in a "control room" or something, deciding the fate of a nation, a world, a town.

Well, this is how to do it - Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns have done it better than it's ever been done. There is the cool, low-key tension of Oceans 11 crossed with The Andromeda Strain and what could be a dry as dust medical procedural. Rather than showing the disaster large scale and then narrowing the focus to how it affects individuals chosen to be our proxies, Soderbergh starts on "Day 2", as the title card says, and then gives us a well-known actor who will go from laughing on the phone while coughing, to seizing, to having their cap peeled complete with bone saw sound effects, within the first 10 minutes. Now that he has your attention, he pulls back and lets you ponder how this will happen millions of more times by jumping all over the world showing individuals getting sick, touching things that you will touch, and then mostly dying.

We get the usual "assembly of the crack team of scientists", this time made up of photogenic young women (Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard), old fat guys (Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould, and Armin Rohde, who I swore was Tim Curry). Matt Damon is our decent American everyman with a teenaged daughter to protect. When the bad guy is a blameless virus, we need a proxy bad guy in the form of Jude Law as a successful blogger who senses an opportunity and begins promoting a homeopathic alternative to the boring old traditional wash your hands/social distancing/vaccine approach of the CDC and WHO.

Finally, as the guy in the lab coat who will explain how viral proteins interact with the cellular mitochondria, yada, yada, we get Jennifer Ehle in her first big movie role in a while. The lady who could glide through Jane Austen dialogue like a shark through a surfer handles the virology seminar at high speed while staying convincingly serious in the scenes where most disaster movies disintegrate.

Of course there are standard humanizing elements involving doomed family members, scientists, friends, etc., but they are played realistically rather than histrionically, and Damon is good as the shell-shocked husband and father. Soderbergh maintains the cool distance by relegating scenes of riots and societal disintegration to mostly off-screen events, followed by shots of empty health clubs, airports, neatly excavated mass graves, etc. I don't think there's a shot fired.

The script will be called "balanced", which is Hollywood's uncomfortable euphemism for NOT making out big pharma companies, the CDC, and the federal government as monsters. The great final scenes use the photos on the first victim's camera plus a small insertion of filmed backstory to take us back to "Day 1" with real power. The explanation of how the contagion begins to spread will make Soderbergh and Burns beloved of epidemiologists everywhere.

There is a short list of good disease movies starting with, I think, "Panic in The Streets", and "The Andromeda Strain" (1971). This is now the best.

Behind a free registration is this article from Dr. Paul Offit reviewing the movie “Contagion”. A key paragraph,
"In Contagion, Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews a CDC official played by Laurence Fishburne, and he gives Krumwiede equal time. It's interesting that what the conspiracy theorist talks about is people. Krumwiede confronts Fishburne with questions such as "What did you know?" and "When did you know it?" when, in fact, the issues are "How can we identify this virus?," "How can we make a vaccine against it?," and "How can we prevent its spread?" It's an issue of science, not an issue of people. But in this movie, Sanjay Gupta, playing himself, makes it an issue about people -- another example of art imitating life, because Gupta has been perfectly willing to allow antivaccine celebrities to be on his show. In another interesting example of art imitating life, Jude Law [reportedly] actually believes in homeopathy.
In summary, Contagion is an excellent movie in that it is willing to allow science to prevail over drama. It is quite well done, so I recommend it. Thank you."

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