Friday, September 9, 2011

Social Disease

Film Review - CONTAGION (2011)
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Yes, it was a generation ago when the film industry was all a-buzz about the forthcoming non-fiction bio-thriller The Hot Zone, Richard Preston's best-selling cautionary tale of the dangers of pandemic-causing viruses like Ebola and Hanta. A bidding war ensued, competing projects were announced, and the Spring of 1995 saw Warner Brothers' glossy thriller Outbreak, with a tony cast including Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. Pulpy and over-the-top, it provoked true unease only during a sequence where a cough in a movie theater disseminates the virus among the audience; when a flesh-and-blood patron coughed, my crowd broke into nervous laughter.

What a difference a generation makes. Now the same studio gives us Contagion, as serious and solemn a film as could be made on the subject. Unlike earlier disease-run-amok entries like The Andromeda Strain, there are no chromium-plated
laboratories constructed in desert enclaves, no no leaps of technological faith. This is plausibility of the present moment. The film is committed, often bracingly so, to presenting the spread of a heretofore unseen pathogen in detail that is both panoramic and intimate in scope. I give away nothing when I say that, no, the disease is not contained before it exacts a horrific toll on humanity, and accolades and Oscars will not save every member of this star-studded cast.

Even before the lights rise on Scene One, we are put ill at ease by the sound of a cough and the unsettling typeface that tells us we have already jumped to Day Two. Gwyneth Paltrow is on her cellphone, post-assignation, and looking more than a bit peaked. (The entire movie appears shot through a thin veil of mucous.) Through a rapid sequence of cuts, we are shown the exponential spread of the virus, and how within days it is infecting Hong Kong, London and, for those of us nationalists, Minneapolis and Chicago. Paltrow's husband Matt Damon is a widower before the first reel ends, and that's not the extent of the damage done his family. The MEV-1 virus is a terrible swift sword, and screenwriter Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) is also interested in the machinations that occur on the political, corporate and social network levels. It does not take long for Uncle Sam to discover that there are few protocols that are effective when the greatest enemy we face are the relationships that bring us together - along with our unfortunate tendency to touch our faces 3-5 times per hour.

That's what makes Contagion an odd endeavor, and ultimately one that's less than fulfilling. For all its attention to scientific jargon and intrigue, director Soderbergh struggles with the relationships that not only must power the plot but engage the emotions. There is much to accomplish here, and the film clips along briskly - perhaps too briskly - in an effort to mirror the spread of the disease. Jude Law is a blogger who stumbles upon footage of one of the first victims, and may or may not have found the cure in nature (think Laetrile). From his initial YouTube-spread home trial, we cut to a mob vandalizing a pharmacy unable to keep the substance in stock. The rhythm throws us off balance, and we struggle to connect to characters that are there to advance the thesis. When the film permits the audience a scene of emotion, it's as though it reminded itself that, yes, this is still about the human race and we wouldn't be in this mess if we didn't like to cuddle.

Considered as a pseudo-documentary, Contagion has greater impact. Many of the cast members have seldom appeared this fragile, even puffy, onscreen. Damon has taken on the additional heft of a guy who loves his Vikings and his bratwurst, and Kate Winslet is thoroughly de-glammed as a CDC employee assigned to keep a lid on a situation that has spun out of control before it has been recognized. And underneath my viewing of the movie, there is this amazement that it could be released on the same weekend as the decade anniversary of the inciting incident for years of national fear. How far we have come from the days when the Twin Towers needed to be digitally erased from Zoolander lest the audience be reminded of what it could never possibly forget. For such an abjectly grim look at global catastrophe, Contagion saves its most fearsome moment for the very end. It's the shoe-dropping Day One; the casual prelude to cataclysm has a more shattering impact than the scenes that precede it. Perhaps it's finally time to move beyond 9/11 fear. But then again, they never really did establish who mailed that anthrax in 2001, did they?