Friday, September 9, 2011

Contagion examines panic as an infectious disease

Posted By on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM

THE CDC EMPLOYS OOMPA-LOOMPAS: Jennifer Ehle in Contagion
  • Participant Films
  • THE CDC EMPLOYS OOMPA-LOOMPAS: Jennifer Ehle in 'Contagion'
Pop culture epidemiologists can trace our current fear of civilization-destroying supergerms back to 1992, when Richard Preston’s New Yorker article “Crisis in the Hot Zone” introduced the Ebola virus to a mass audience. Ebola and other rare but high-profile fevers infected our imaginations partly with the severity of their symptoms. “He had sloughed his gut,” Preston wrote of one early victim. (Ew.)

Steven Soderbergh’s compelling medical thriller Contagion gives audiences the chills by first conveying the universal experience of sickness. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the Patient Zero character, a Minneapolis-based mother and business traveler who comes down with a bug after a trip to Hong Kong. Soderbergh’s merciless close-ups conveys how crappy it feels to be sick, as the Oscar-winning beauty reveals inflamed nostrils, heavy eyelids and a slack expression. Looking at Paltrow and other patients, we think “We’ve all been there,” until the bodies start piling up.

Contagion’s never better than its first act as the mystery disease strikes people down with shocking speed. Scenes with Paltrow innocently handling the communal peanuts at an airport bar, or paying a bill with a credit card, almost gleefully illustrate how easily bacteria spread in public places, and will send germophobic audiences scrambling for the hand sanitizer. Contagion hits closer to home than the average film about a zombie plague, since we’re unlikely to get bitten by the undead, but everyone gets headaches and sniffles.

With Contagion, Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and a huge ensemble of famous actors evoke Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster films of the 1970s, only with a cinema verite style that takes the premise seriously. The cast features Matt Damon as Paltrow’s husband, who struggles to raise his daughter safely when the disease causes mass civic unrest, as well as Jude Law as a sneering, self-righteous blogger of a site called “Truth Serum” who capitalizes on the world health crisis.

Most of the cast, however, play health workers with a focus on the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. In his best performance in years, Laurence Fishburne plays a compassionate director as concerned with his employees’ morale as with containing the illness. Kate Winslet portrays a field researcher who clashes with local bureaucracy as she tries to get the Minnesota outbreak under control. Lesser-known Jennifer Ehle practically steals the film as CDC researcher, frequently engulfed in one of those ballooning biosafety suits, who conveys the technical challenges of reproducing the virus in the lab, developing a cure and producing it in quantities quickly enough to save millions of people. The frequently technical dialogue and dreary office rooms make everything seem uncomfortably plausible.

The tension and spectacle should increase in Contagion’s second half, as the disease leads to a global pandemic, including riots and states that close their borders. But the film gets particularly exercised over the wildfare nature of rumors and mankind’s susceptibility to panic. Soderbergh and Burns suggest that, in the face of a superflu that kills one out of four people, the real problem lies with irresponsible, opportunistic bloggers like Law’s character. Contagion also seems comfortable with demonizing the Chinese, presenting numerous negative portrayals and no real positive ones, particularly when the World Health Organization’s Marion Cotillard tracks down the disease’s origins.

In the second half, relationship subplots seem to come out of nowhere, involving Fishburne’s lady friend and Ehle’s father, for instance. If Irwin Allen were at the helm, Contagion would probably be an hour longer and explore these connections in minute detail. Soderbergh seems to have jettisoned all narrative ballast to give Contagion as much momentum as possible, so it feels like pages of characterization were cut from the script.

With its excellent cast, Contagion emphasizes the medical and bureaucratic procedures required to combat a global health emergency, so it plays like a speculative documentary as well as a potential CDC recruitment film. Even the CDC, however, proves stymied when trying to find a counteragent for viral misinformation on the Internet.

Contagion. 4 stars. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Sep. 9. At area theaters.

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