If you didn’t get your flu shot last fall, you might want to consider it before renting Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” which is available this week on DVD. As the title indicates, there’s a whole lotta sickness in this film: if you’re one who dislikes handrails, straps in buses, jammed airplanes, and, well, just about any form of close contact with masses of others, you’ll likely be made even more suspicious of your fellow potential carriers and ready to stock up on hand sanitizers.
The movie starts on “Day 2” with a cough, followed by a close-up of a decidedly unglamorous Gwyneth Paltrow. She plays Beth Emhoff, a Minneapolis businesswoman returning from a trip to Hong Kong, making a brief, uh, layover in Chicago before returning to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and their two children. It quickly becomes evident that she doesn’t have jet lag or “some bug” but a deadly and rapidly developing virus. When she collapses and goes into convulsions, Mitch rushes her to ER, but she dies almost upon arrival. Returning home, a stunned Mitch discovers that his son has also died in his absence.
With this family and others throughout the world—London, Hong Kong, LA—Soderbergh emphasizes the sheer speed with which the deadly illness spreads. Meanwhile, in a parallel and sometimes overlapping plot, we watch the efforts of doctors at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta trying to isolate the cause and find a cure. The movie focuses on three of them, director Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Drs. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) who do the literally thankless front line work and the critical lab experiments in search of a vaccine.
Soderbergh emphasizes the selflessness of the doctors, not all of whom come to a happy end. By contrast, a megalomaniacal blogger, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law as anti-hero), spreads rumor and outright lies in the cause of self-aggrandizement and enrichment. Metaphorically, the movie suggests, the “information virus” can be just as deadly as the biological one, as the ensuing panic demonstrates.
But the movie doesn’t go as crazy as it might have—and as the American populace does—showing the ripple effect as the disease takes its toll: by Day 12, eight million have died. Rather, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns focus on the Big Picture and the small one, intercutting the global and the individual crises. Film editor Stephen Mirrione deserves credit for maintaining coherence in a film that could easily have lost it, as well as for helping to keep the movie to a tidy ninety minutes in length.
As in his Oscar-winning “Traffic,” Soderbergh wrings excellent performances from a cast of stars who accept relatively diminished roles for an effective ensemble effort. Paltrow and Damon in wildly different ways show the wisdom of putting big name talents in small parts, and Winslet, Ehle, and Fishburne keep the doctors from becoming melodramatic types, instead making them conflicted human beings working under enormous pressure.
The movie generally wastes Oscar-winner Marion Cottilard as a World Health Organization epidemiologist, her story line left unconnected and ultimately unresolved. And some politicians and health care professionals take a beating that is probably undeserved, becoming the secondary heavies for their foot-dragging in confronting the reality of the disease. (Minnesota Nice takes a hit, too, though I have to note that the outdoor locations were actually in Chicago, which might explain it.)
“Contagion” is appropriately rated “PG-13” for language and the general fear factor that the plot might well induce in the young. Soderbergh uses silence and subdued music expertly and often, an understatement which could lead to some restlessness among subteens used to being overwhelmed by the usual cacophony. Adults also could well be made uneasy, but for other reasons.