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Rapid Review: Contagion

September 11, 2011

Break out the hand sanitizer, kids.  If you ever wondered what Outbreak crossed with The Stand (minus the supernatural elementsmight be like if it were directed by Steven Soderbergh,  you are officially in luck.

There’s something about the mere mention of an epidemic that makes every hair on our necks stand at attention.  We’ve never sincerely witnessed or truly begun to contemplate a complete nuclear holocaust, but history is filled with pandemics that have laid waste to seemingly impenetrable empires.  We’re not so far removed from the age of the Black Death to quite be able to scoff at how one little bacterium managed to plunge much of the known world into both literal and figurative darkness.

Matt Damon's Mitch

It is also typically American to question and ponder just how much “secret” research has been done regarding chemical and biological warfare by our own government.  Scientifically speaking, though, nothing is more terrifying than the very miniscule difference between what cures and what kills.  In reality,the biggest threat  to our livelihood lies in the  strange and silent, but all-too-hidden aspects of mother nature.  When Angry Cells Collide doesn’t make a very good movie title, but it is more accurate and more threatening than any government conspiracy theory.  Contagion takes this very real fear afflicting most germaphobes,  and turns it into a multi-layered tale of how one determined virus can impact the entire world.

As with most “apocalyptic”  genre films, Contagion has a huge ensemble cast and an even larger scope.  Director Soderbergh  has a global reach in the movie, but yet he manages to make the stories and interlocking narratives connect in a very real and personal way.   Stephen King’s masterwork about the ultimate pandemic, The Stand, was written before the rise of the cell phone and the Internet.  Now, we have to worry about the rumor mill and the spread of misinformation in addition to any global crises that might arise.  It’s a toss-up as to which one is more malignant.

Matt Damon plays Mitch, the “everyman” of the story.  It is his struggle and personal battle that is at the forefront of the interlocking plot.   His wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the center of the search for the origin of this mysterious disease.    All avenues extend from her seemingly innocent trip to Asia.

In more of an action-oriented film, our characters would be running and dodging bad guys; in Contagion,there is nowhere to hide from a society that is disintegrating under the weight of fear, selfishness and downright ignorance.  Our “heroes” are the scientists and government officials who still cling to what is good and right about being human.  As the chaos grows, only a few are able to remember what decency means.

Jude Law's Krumwleide navigates what is left behind

There are several organizations behind the scenes working to stop the spread of the fatal disease.    There is a triumvirate of female scientists and health workers (played by Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard and Kate Winslet) who are at the core of the action.  Winslet’s  Dr. Mears works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and is tasked with investigating the initial outbreak in the U.S.  Her struggles with local powers-that-be are frustrating to watch, but no doubt all too accurately portrayed.

Marion Cotillard’s Dr. Orantes works for the World Health Organization and scrambles to trace the movement of the disease in China, but her storyline is the least interesting and most contrived, veering into a strange plot line that is designed to show the plight of the masses and the poor in less developed countries, but never quite hits the mark.  It interrupts the rest of the momentum and is a glaring weakness in an otherwise interesting film.

It is the powerful performance by British actress Jennifer Ehle (perhaps best known in the U.S. for her role in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries) that is the most interesting in the entire film.   As Dr. Ally Hextall, a scientist working in the bowels of the CDC, she manages to be believable and compelling even when spouting massive waves of scientific jargon.  Hextall is the character in the film closest in proximity to the virus in every sense of the word.  Her determination to unravel its secrets is all-consuming, but stems from the best of what makes humanity strive for survival.  Ehle’s performance is both understated and moving – she manages to bring a soul and  a heart to a story that is missing much of both in its opening scenes.

Those with the meatier roles, of course, are the inevitable “shades of grey” characters who occupy morality’s fragile state of limbo.  The most intriguing of these is Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede, a talented but irritating  blogger who is determined to expose a conspiracy between world governments and the ever-almighty pharmaceutical companies he feels are to blame for the collapse of the world order.   He is the shadowy representative of the power of the rumor mill and our pervasive Internet culture.   He is scoffed at by higher powers, but they misjudge his reach.  One crucial character tells Krumwiede that “Blogging isn’t writing; it’s just graffiti with punctuation.”   It’s a great line, but Krumwiede knows that his medium has a power that strikes fear into the heart of every government official.   It’s no surprise that his blog’s suggestions and intimations of homeopathic cures add more dissonance to a nation already in upheaval.  Law’s performance is jarringly irritating, but that’s why it is so effective.

Jennifer Ehle in a wonderful performance as Dr. Ally Hextall

There’s also Lawrence Fishburne, playing that type of intimidating authority figure he usually does (and he ‘s quite good at it), as well as a host of  other stars in more minor roles too numerous to count.  They all serve their purpose seamlessly.

Contagion moves into expected territory in its middle section, veering away from the science and into the more comfortable realm of sights and frights, where the streets are no longer safe for the likes of average Joes and Janes like you and me.  Still, it maintains its momentum and it never gets tedious, which is a compliment.  It finally loops around into a somber but surprisingly hopeful coda that saves the film from a more muddled last half.

Soderbergh understands that the best drama often comes from watching people do what we do best: manage to take hundreds of years of evolution and throw it down the toilet when threatened with something outside our scope of understanding.

Overall, Contagion is a tightly wound and effective movie that will kick-start the fall season quite nicely.

Overall Grade: B +

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