I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the same reductive critiques being tossed around about Contagion. Calling it “another Outbreak” is as ridiculous as calling it just another Hollywood production–it’s really neither. In Contagion, we have an ensemble piece, more along the lines of Soderbergh’s other works, like Traffic. Soderbergh’s never exactly been an auteur, but his style is as glaring and as much of a trademark as anything. He tends to jump from project to project and it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint which film means something to him, perhaps they all do in some way. Nevertheless, he is one of the most fascinating–albeit uneven–directors working in the business today. Thankfully, Contagion is one of his better films. It also happens to be one of the better films of the year.
Beth Emhoff, played by Gwyneth Paltrow–in a surprisingly minor role–is returning from a business trip in China. She isn’t nearly as innocent of a wife as she seems to be: she’s making a stop in Chicago to “visit” an ex-lover. At some point during a high-brow party in Hong-Kong, she contracts a virus. Somehow, an infidelity blossoms into a national catastrophe, as the virus she contracted makes its way onto U.S. soil and several other continents. Soderbergh shows the spread of the virus cleverly, by using montage to link the small events that set the virus in motion. Switching perspectives, we are back in the United States as the virus begins impacting others’ lives. Beth’s husband, Mitch Emhoff, played by Matt Damon, is the first person affected by the outbreak, and if there was any doubt of Damon’s acting ability, he puts it to rest at the beginning of the movie when his wife dies.
Contagion isn’t exactly a unique film–like The Girlfriend Experience–but it is a strong commercial movie that works well. Soderbergh has always had a unique perspective that speaks louder than perhaps a conventional narrative would. Contagion follows a straightforward story, but carries a lot of emotional weight, and the paranoia that it brings is likely to cause the audience to leave wanting to wash their hands. Boasting a solid, well-rounded cast, Soderbergh spreads the perspective around, going from online blogger junkie, to government agents and scientists attempting to find a cure for the outbreak. It’s never easy to create an ensemble piece, but Soderbergh seems to be an expert at it. Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh’s longtime screenwriter, also displays his skills with a script that is as intricate as it is rich in character. Much of the credit of how well the story is intertwined and how it flows goes to him.
Before the film was released, Soderbergh spoke a little about his inspiration. Like news and information, viruses travel quickly, like the virus in Contagion. But what I find even more interesting is his recurring interest in misinformation and lying. Jude Law, who very convincingly plays a blogger named Alan Krumwiede, gains a relatively large following by spreading around government conspiracy theories. The feds are not pleased by his commentary. Dr.Ian Sussman, played by Elliott Gould, has an extremely clever line, which might speak what’s on everyone’s mind at this point,”Blogging is not writing. It’s just graffiti with punctuation.” It’s difficult to tell where the line is drawn from real journalism, where the lies and truths are–that’s where Soderbergh’s film truly strikes a chord. Almost inevitably, in the end, Alan ends up being a pretty shady character with as much to gain as the government does by lying.
It’s difficult to find too many negatives about Contagion: it actually works very well. However, after the film, I thought for awhile about ensemble pieces and their limitations and capabilities. Granted, the “sub genre” is one that has a pretty patchy history, despite people like Altman’s and Soderbergh’s contributions. We’ve had masterful directors working in it, but it never truly feels as cohesive as it should. In my eyes, regardless of how great the director is, the “sub genre” will always lag behind because of the lack of focus–the scope of the work is perhaps too much. Contagion is flawed, but undeniably well-made, and still one of the better films of the year. It seems Soderbergh enjoys working within ensemble pieces, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. We can hope, anyway.