'Contagion' a great thriller

Warner Bros. Pictures
1 hour, 45 minutes


Steven Soderbergh is not a lightweight, second-tier director. He’s a major talent in Hollywood. He was nominated as Best Director for two movies in the same year (“Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic”) — the first and only other time that had happened since 1938. He’s done thrillers, action movies, historical dramas, science fiction, and steamy character studies. He’s even done documentaries, for goodness sakes.

So why is it that when Steven Spielberg mumbles a movie idea into his pillow at night, I read about it in six different places, but Soderbergh can show up with a finished film, packed with stars, and the general public had no idea it was even in the works? It’s because, unlike most Hollywood heavyweights, Soderbergh works quietly, and more importantly, cheaply. This week’s masterfully executed biological thriller showcases the man’s talent for delivering a top-quality product on a budget.

“Contagion” is not historical or based on fact, but, if it helps, you could easily set the story in 2009, the year that everyone freaked out about H1N1, the Swine Flu. That “pandemic” turned out to be a little overblown, in a similar way to this year’s killer Hurricane Irene. The story “Contagion” tells reminds me of a particularly cogent comment I heard on the radio recently about the excessive Irene coverage. “What are you complaining about?!” the irate Katrina survivor asked. “You dodged a bullet! You could have been us! Just be thankful and move on.” The film asks how would things have been different if the H1N1 outbreak had been worse.

Gwyneth Paltrow is Beth Emhoff, a corporate executive whose job takes her around the world, including a recent trip to Hong Kong. When she returns to her husband Mitch, played by Matt Damon, Beth is feeling pretty low. A bad cold or flu has come up quickly and knocked her on her butt. Literally. After she collapses in the kitchen with seizures, Mitch rushes her to the hospital, but there’s nothing to be done. She’s gone, just like that. This is Day 3.

As this mystery virus (not H1N1 — like I said, this is not based on real events) spreads, we are introduced to a wider cast of characters, and much like a 1970s disaster film, we get to see them struggle through their personal trials in the wake of a major catastrophe. Lawrence Fishburne is Dr. Ellis Cheever, head of the Atlanta Center for Disease Control, and in charge of managing the growing crisis. Kate Winslet is Dr. Erin Meers, on point for the CDC, tasked with stopping the spread of the virus in the field. And rounding out the major players, Jude Law is Alan Krumwiede, an Australian ex-pat blogger on the trail of a possible alternative cure.

The problem with an outbreak, as described in the film, is that the number of people exposed grows exponentially and it’s a race against time to come up with a treatment before the world reaches the tipping point.

I was very impressed by “Contagion,” and not because Soderbergh tries any fancy cinematic tricks, or by any major script surprises. I was impressed by simple, solid filmmaking. Good acting, good writing, and confident, straightforward storytelling. Everyone does their job, and comes up with a movie packed with tension and yet, with the comforting sense that you know where it’s headed.

That’s not to say it’s simple or predictable — just not weird or creepy. Soderbergh, despite his mainstream success, is often classified as an indie director, but there’s no point where this movie goes off in disturbing indie directions.

Some are criticizing this film for being to straightforward — too sanitized — but I appreciated it. It was plenty scary and got its point across just fine without excessive violence or gore. The real fear here is in the realization of how easy it is for disease to spread. Winslet’s Dr. Meers explains to Chicago city officials that the average human touches their face two to three times every waking minute.

Those hands are touching surfaces crawling with organisms most of the rest of the time. It’s a wonder we’ve lasted this long.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the movie could have stood just a little more melodrama. That seems an odd complaint for such a tight, compact story, but I think a little more unraveling might have been appropriate. Matt Damon, in particular, could have used a little more emotion.

As an actor, I love Damon, and he can play just about any level of emotion you want, so why Soderbergh had him temper his reaction to personal tragedy, I don’t know. It becomes clear later that Mitch has not lost exactly everything after the disease decimates his family, but still, I was squirming in my seat and he’s up there putting on a brave face.

I’m sure it’s no accident. I’m sure Soderbergh toned down the pathos intentionally, but it was the only element of the film that kept it from really echoing its ’70s counterparts. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I know I wouldn’t have handled things as well as Mitch.

But then, I’m no Matt Damon.

Grade: A-

“Contagion” is rated PG-13 for intense dramatic scenes and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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