Contagion – 2011
Directed by Steven Soderburgh
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Elliot Gould, Chin Han, John Hawkes, Demetri Martin
Written by Scott Z. Burns
It’s been a long time since I had given a second thought about Jennifer Ehle. After seeing her in the classic 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, I read up on her, found out that she had done some film work, a lot of Theater work, had a relationship with Colin Firth, and they both moved on. She lost me at “Theater.” Too bad for me. About 30 minutes into Contagion, with the stars passing through the screen with an ease that few directors could manage, my wife asked me who it was playing CDC scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall. So far she had stolen each scene she was in as a straightforward, yet unrestrained problem solver. This is not an easy task, when you factor in Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould and comedian Demetri Martin as her primary counterparts. It was not a surprise that she noticed her first, as Pride and Prejudice is one of her all time favorite adaptations. Given that most of what she watches is what I watch, she was as happy as I was to find out the good doctor was none other than the prototype for all women who read more than they shop, Elizabeth Bennet.
The command she displays on the screen causes one to wonder why she hasn’t become a major star. It’s hard not to think that she will have something relevant to offer to the resolution early on. Thing is, she is featured not at all in the commercials or advertising for the film, nor has she been mentioned in any of the reviews. Maybe this is not so much of a surprise, as Soderbergh’s ability to meld all the name characters into real people who are professionals, antagonists and normal folks. Other than Ehle’s superlative demonstration, the acting here is so unanimously good, that no one performance stands out from any of the others. Wonderful as it is, the acting isn’t even the best part of the film.
Contagion is the best overall film about a viral outbreak ever produced. The reason for this is simple. Most movies dealing with the subject make the easy mistake of adding artificial drama to the situation. To wit, in the average film, Outbreak, I never cared that Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo used to be an item. It is a hackneyed cliché and means nothing to the dangers faced in the real world, and it just yanks any credibility out of the film. Instead of falling into this trap, Soderbergh and Burns stay on task and keep the science in the forefront.
To this end, two factors stand out as particularly effective:
1) The demonstrated need grow a virus long enough to create an antivirus has never been broached on film, from what I have seen. Here we learn that this is very hard to do when the virus destroys everything it comes across so quickly. Just getting to see the lengths scientists go through just to grow cultures in a lab brought a sense of pressure that was very easy to understand and feel.
2) There is an intelligent investigation of how the virus evolved and, essentially, tracing it to where it came from. Cotillard’s character, Dr. Leonora Orantes, as a representative of the World Health Organization, shows how difficult it is to not only trace the physical evidence, but to deal with the political aspects of going to a country and letting it’s citizens know that all clues point to them.
Unfortunately, this storyline is sidetracked with a subplot that adds little to the overall scheme, while cancelling out the effectiveness of Cotillard’s performance.
Another questionable aspect to the film is the emphasis of blogging as a source of medical information, or intrigue, as it were. I know that my wife, who has a degree in Medical Anthropology after studying to become a nurse in college, will consult certain sites for information when one of the girls is sick. It’s worked pretty well, so far. The line is drawn for us, though, once the sites approach the edge of medical science. Law’s character, as conspiracy theorist and general agitator Alan Krumwiede, stands to the side, barking constantly. As one who might theorize as to the potency of the coming virus and investigate deaths that go unreported or swept under the rug, I can buy his character. What is harder to conceive is that same guy making himself a guinea pig for an alternative medicine which catches fire through the country and less likely, gives him press time with the CDC scientist Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne).
These complaints are almost trivial, though, when compared to what Soderbergh and Burns get right. The human element, dispensing relief and supplies months into the outbreak rings true. This is mainly because the riots seem random, yet reasonable and eventually, society balances it out.
For these scenes Damon, playing as anonymously as possible, gives one of the most solid performances of his incredible career. There is a deep resonance in his relationship with his daughter, and the way they cut themselves out of society, while trying to keep up civility with each other and the people they meet endures throughout the movie. In particular, a scene at night, viewed from his sleeping daughter’s bed, is chilling in the deepest way to anyone who has ever been a guardian of a child. It’s like a more reasonable precursor to The Road.
Similarly, Kate Winslet, as CDC Coordinator Beth Emhoff, handles an unwinnable situation valiantly and with much grace. Her character is representative of a cast willing to give uptheir chance to be the subject of the movie for the sake of the story. One wonders if Angelina Jolie or even Julia Roberts could do the same.
Which brings me back to Jennifer Ehle’s Hextall. Working in an apparent bubble for much of the film, we get a chance to see a more human side of her character, just about the time we start to lose hope. This scene gives credence to what everything she does, instead of pushing her principles awkwardly aside in desperation. Fishburne’s, Cheever, makes a few similar choices, but instead of being breaking character, these actions add to the already established traits. One can understand why these choices are made, and with only a small amount of trepidation, accept them.
Contagion sets the standard for how to handle large casts as well as a complex subject without trips into sentiment or excessive histrionics. The missteps are few, and, as a result, the natural tension is palpable. Soderbergh has reestablished himself as one of the great directors after a generally successful, but somewhat spotty decade.
(****1/2 out of *****)