Contagion (2011)

Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet

In the moment, Contagion is a rush. This is one of the virtues of its structure, one of the late legacies of the aughts fascination with multiple loosely connected story strands. (It’s like everyone in Hollywood watched Nashville on the same weekend in 1998 and spent the next decade trying to make their own janky versions.) Where Contagion has an advantage over its predecessors, from the good (Syriana) to the fine (Babel) to the worst movie ever made (Crash), is that it has greater structural integrity at the front and back ends. Babel, which I guess earns points for being the most if not the best, is so random and so keyed up about globalization that it could, frankly, begin or end almost anywhere. Contagion chooses an event which is going to affect not a few unfortunates but the whole hoi polloi, and so we’re asked as an audience not to admire the neatness of what can only be called Gaghanesque coincidences, but to recognize that a story that touches everybody is going to have multiple viewpoints to tread through. At its worst, Contagion wastes a subplot with Marion Cotillard and Chin Han; at its best, it gives a prescient theater of the war to Jude Law. There’s still enough good spread throughout the rest of the movie for it to work, placing the best shot of the movie in the Emhoff thread, its passion with Erin Mears (Winslet), and its optimism with Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle).

The look on Beth Emhoff’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) face as we watch her die is the movie. Paltrow, for her part, looks so afraid that it reminds you of all the brilliant acting she’s done in her career; for someone who knew her growing up not as the talented actress but as half of the couple who named a child “Apple,” it’s endlessly exciting for me to watch her actual performances. Her face in her last moments alive in the movie are as great a triumph as Soderbergh has had in his entire career; we are absolutely sucked into those last moments, the way the doctor tries to check her eyes while she looks over at her husband Mitch (Damon), surely knowing what fate awaits her, projecting the death of Mitch and her son Clark, knowing that she spent the last days of her life reigniting something with an old flame halfway around the world from her family. In a few seconds, Soderbergh succinctly finds the heart of the picture. It’s about fear, but plenty of movies are about fear. It’s about people’s last moments, but if it’s true that we see 16,000 murders on TV by our eighteenth birthday, then what’s someone dead of a virus? Soderbergh and Paltrow touch on something sublime in the five or six seconds she fills the screen before we only see her as a corpse with a floppy cranium and in flashbacks, made up, out on the town, smiling and laughing and touching everything with those infected hands of hers. They know what it’s like to die, and to have no idea why it’s happening, and to be absolutely incapable of stopping it no matter how much you want to live. Shaking with this final seizure, Beth looks over for the last time, knowing it’s the last time, at her husband, fully cognizant that this is it. The rest of Contagion, for this death occurs something like nine minutes into the picture, is about what it’s like when everyone else in the world has to begin coping with the idea that it is just around the corner. The movie does not find much dignity in that possibility.

In Hong Kong, a WHO doctor, Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) pores over the surveillance footage from the casino in Macau where Beth gave the virus to multiple other folks across the planet (Tokyo, London, Hong Kong again) who lasted about as long as her. It’s not long before her translator, Sun Feng (Chin Han), decides to use the leverage of this European scientist to extract early access to the vaccine for the people of his local village; he and a few accomplices kidnap Orantes, where she disappears for most of the movie. In Minneapolis, Mitch (naturally immune to the virus) and his daughter wait out the plague as best they can, although virtually everyone else in Klobuchar Country seems to be going mad. Looting is widespread. A liquor store is set on fire. People mob each other for rations passed out by the National Guard. They line up to try to get into Baldwin Country but are turned back at the border. Mitch watches the house next door to his get robbed, sees the light in the window of someone being shot to death. The next day he goes to that house to check for supplies and comes back with a shotgun. At the higher levels of the American government, CDC bigwig Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) tells his girlfriend, Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan) to get out of Chicago, although when she can’t keep quiet about it either, it turns into a minor scandal that will almost certainly get Cheever fired and investigated by Congress after the crisis passes. In other words, venality in the name of survival is the order of the day, a shoddy replacement for the Enlightenment ideals that half these people probably believe they subscribe to. I’m not sure it’s terrifically effective, on the whole. The Orantes subplot is really a wash, the only serious stage outside the United States in the movie, and it’s abandoned for a long, long stretch without hamstringing the picture in the slightest. Mitch’s battle to keep his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) inside for months at a time is hardly the most riveting subplot of the movie, although it’s easy to imagine why Mitch is so sensitive about what could happen to her after watching his wife and stepson go down in the space of minutes. Cheever is tied to multiple subplots in one way or another, so much so that I would call him the main character, but him dabbling in minor corruption for love is probably the least interesting of his jobs to do.

If you’re going to sin, sin boldly: Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is the movie’s chief villain, and what a villain he makes. He fits in seamlessly with his real-life descendants. He’s one half Vani Hari, actively working to get a reaction about a product he can sell just for the financial reward, and one half YouTube conspiracy theorist, racking up pageviews and sowing discord on as many platforms as he can, fomenting distrust against the scientists who are working on a vaccine. In the interim he fakes having the virus, posts about taking forsythia for it, and emerges safely on the other end; of course, he never actually contracts the virus, and the forsythia treatment was a fake designed to rake in money. I know that people talk about Contagion as a movie which is fairly realistic about the way such a virus would spread and how people would try to treat it (albeit with an accelerated timeline), and as a movie which realistically depicts that kind of end of the world fear that would presumably grip a great many people. But eight and a half years after the movie was released, there are people who believe the coronavirus is a hoax, and those people overwhelmingly belong to one side of the American political spectrum. In the world that the movie imagines, sort of a habeas corpses alternate reality in which one cannot deny the dead family and friends and neighbors, this is the closest thing to it, believing that some homeopathic remedy is the solution to the disease and that the government is waiting to give the pharmaceutical companies a way to cash in. Krumwiede lambastes Cheever on TV for giving certain people in Chicago a hint to get out of town, but we see where his moral center is when he finds a pregnant journalist friend of his, Lorraine (Monique Gabriela Curnen) on his doorstep begging for forsythia. Still wearing his little suit with its own air supply, he doesn’t even have the decency to tell her that the forsythia is a swindle and that she and her unborn child are doomed.

The movie is more consistent when it’s about people working on the disease itself, trying to figure out where it’s coming from, how to treat it, and how to stop it. Hextall is that person for most of the back half of the movie, and she is adequate as the doctor who speaks a little too quickly, who hopes to accelerate the vaccination process by sticking herself with the stuff once it becomes clear that it’s hanging tough with a single rhesus monkey. Throughout the movie, she is a figure of goodness, working herself to the bone until she can put the virus in the same frozen storage where they keep SARS and H1N1. If there is a single great flaw with the movie, it’s that they kill off Mears too quickly. On the ground in Minnesota trying to catch up to the Emhoffs and anyone Beth might have infected there, she is tireless in trying to organize treatment and create a map of who’s been infected; at one point Cheever asks her the last time she ate something that wasn’t out of a vending machine, and she replies, after a moment, “Taco Bell?” Naturally, it gets her too. She wakes up in the middle of the night. Hacking, she sticks a thermometer in her mouth, and it’s clear that she knows it’s curtains. She picks up her hotel phone, and we think she must be calling Cheever, as he’s offered to take her calls at any time of day or night. She calls the front desk instead, asks for the names of anyone who might have given her the virus, and makes notes. In that moment, Mears joins a strange pair of bedfellows. I can’t help but think of her in the company of Nicholas Herkimer and Dan Sickles, both shot down during the battle, and both of whom tried to maintain command over the battle while they smoked on their tobacco of choice. Sickles lost the leg; Herkimer died a week and a half later. It doesn’t take Mears quite that long to go herself, and when she does, she is at least given the nobility of her own body bag in the mass grave that’s been dug for the dead.

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