Contagion

Newsweek: The Motion Picture
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Steven Soderbergh
Starring: 
Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwenyth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle
The Setup: 
What would happen in the case of a global pandemic?
Discussion: 

The trailer for this had one big surprise--that it is playing in IMAX. From then I just couldn't get my head around what would happen in the movie. IMAX movies are usually reserved for big spectacles that have some especially visual element, and this... who knows, maybe it was going to have some hallucinatory dream sequence? After that, I still had no good sense of what HAPPENED in it. A lot of people get sick, we see the disease vectors and the government's response, but...? I was then amused when a friend who saw it earlier said, oblivious to the fact it's also playing in IMAX, that there's "no reason to see it on the big screen."

We open with the sound of a cough, then see Gwenyth Paltrow in. Hong Kong airport lounge, coughing over an open bowl of cocktail peanuts, then handing her credit card to the bartender. I was laughing a bit as for a while the excitement is straight out of a Final Destination movie, where you're looking at all the various things in one's environment that can become deadly weapons (part of why I think the Final Destination movies are smarter than they get credit for). We have a title that says "Day 2." She returns home, and before you know it, collapses, is taken to the hospital, and promptly dies. So quickly that her husband, Matt Damon, is stunned. He returns throughout the movie (as does Gwenyth, in flashbacks) and one has to admire both of their solid acting creating characters that do nothing special, aren't showy in any way, but are solid, believable characters just going about their lives. That's professionalism!

So we continue with our all-star cast, Laurence Fishburne as a bigwig of the CDC, who sends Kate Winslet into the field to learn of the first cases and how it spread. We also have Marion Cotillard as an agent of the world health organization going to Hong Kong to determine the origin of the new virus, where the authorities want to deny that it came from there. Jennifer Ehle is a recurring researcher in Fishburne's lab (and who gains from her lesser-known status as an actor, as you sit there going "Who is THAT?" as opposed to "Oh right, Gwenyth Paltrow"). In San Francisco, Jude Law is an out-there liberal blogger who runs and alarmist blog that basically everything the government says is a lie, and decrying that pharmaceutical companies are making profits from the public's misery. Elliott Gould is on hand as a researcher who is first able to grow the virus in a stable environment.

So we learn about the numerous paths of transmittal. We learn about mathematical patterns of virus spread. We see how the government might REALLY REACT to such a situation. We catch a glimpse into the HUMAN DRAMA that might unfold in such a situation. We have unexpected characters fall sick. We have surprising reversals in personal stories. Then a few very tepid themes start to emerge: the extent to which one wants to bend the rules to protect one's own loved ones. The question of who receives treatment and attention first. And finally the handshake as weapon. Then we explore the extent to which one insists on openness and touch with others, even though it might be dangerous or deadly.

But we don't spend enough time with any one character to really become involved in their story or emotions, which keeps one at a distance. When a character reappears on screen you have a second of having to remember who they are and what their drama is. Marion Cotillard vanishes from the movie for such a long stretch I completely forgot about her. Eventually cities are quarantined, food becomes scarce, and we start having roving bands of (always anonymous if not actually masked) looters and robbers. It's effective, but it doesn't last long enough to stand out much--it's just another element. Soon we are seeing deserted city streets strewn with garbage, and hearing that millions have died. One sees it, but I personally didn't really feel the enormity of what is supposedly happening. Contrast this to the opening of Dawn of the Dead (original, please), where one scene of a TV studio devolving into chaos let's you know, and feel, that society is ripping apart.

One of the few characters who gets enough screen time to make an impression is Jude Law's blogger. He is later shown to be a person of shifty morality and a self-righteous hypocrite, as corrupt as the people he rails against. His thread gets so much attention and lacks the subtlety and shading of the rest of the movie, to the extent that it starts to gain a feeling of personal screed. Bloggers are BAD. They don't care about YOU! They just want their fifteen minutes of faux-fame! One thing the movie doesn't go into is that bloggers have performed useful service in many ways, and have punctured the wall of official government/media communication, which has legitimately been shown again and again to include several cover-ups and hidden connections with industry for profit at the expense of the public. Sure, bloggers might have a dangerous side, but they also have a useful side. Because the movie spends so much time on this one-sided view--magnified by the contrast with the ambiguity of the other issues--one walks out not with a sense of having understood the issues and dangers bloggers raise, but merely that Steven Soderbergh Really Hates Bloggers.

After it was over, the question my friend Howard and I had was: What was the point of that movie? Howard always wants to find a unifying thematic element, which is useful thinking in most cases, and what he came up with is that nowadays the handshake, which the movie makes a point of saying used to signify that a person was not carrying a weapon, now IS the weapon. This is definitely in the movie, but I think it's just a side-point, not the main point. There is another side point that people will try to protect their loved ones, but that anonymous outsiders will try to steal what you have in order to protect THEIR own. Ultimately I think the movie is basically a Newsweek article that might be called "The Coming Global Pandemic," and it dramatizes how it might occur, how the government might respond and what the effect on society could be. I was trying to think of another example of a movie like this, when it occurred to me that Soderbergh made one himself: Traffic, from which we learn that the war on drugs is hopelessly muddled.

So it's true that this film contains much more up-to-date information and scientific specifics--as you would expect from a Newsweek article. But in terms of an engaging movie that makes its point about human connection being tested by a survival situation, the politics that emerge from the threat of deadly contagion, and the mechanics of societal breakdown that emerge from a global pandemic, I think it's a difficult argument to say that this film is more effective, and leaves you with more to think about, than Dawn of the Dead.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, but you'll lose nothing by waiting for the video.