Pras on World Films: CONTAGION

The greatest compliment one could pay this movie is that CONTAGION looks less like a disaster movie than like an international  thriller. And thank God for Steven Soderberg directing this film, which in the wrong hands could just as easily have turned into a Holywood style template making a mockery of the subtle yet significant aspects detailing the process of the spread of a global pandemic.

Anna Jacoby-Herron and Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's virus drama ContagionIn a film packed with the biggest Hollywood actors attached to it, Soderberg deliberately has broken the mould by treating them as minor characters in the film (where the virus-spread is the center of attraction) not hesitating to kill a few of them off quite early in the film.  Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Gwynneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law,  and several others.  MEV-1, the fictional virus with the starring role is nearly as deadly as 1918’s Spanish flu (an estimated 50 million killed worldwide.

You’re a school nurse who sends home a little boy flushed  with fever; you reach into a bowl of peanuts at a bar; you pick up a cell phone  left on a counter. It doesn’t take much contact to become infected in “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant movie about the grimmest subject  imaginable: a pandemic that kills millions of people in a few months. “Contagion” is serious, precise, frightening, emotionally enveloping. It’s a  highly controlled film about an out-of-control event, a film so sure-handed and  intelligent that it has an invigorating, even an enlightening, quality, as if a  blurred picture had suddenly come into focus. The calm is what’s so startling in ‘Contagion’…. The attention to detail — and to the infinite ways germs can spread that we probably don’t want to think about — provide the sensation that this sort of outbreak really could happen right Contagion is expected to win the weekend at the box officenow. Docudrama style, the movie weaves scenes of epidemiologists working to locate the source of the virus and break its code with vignettes of ordinary folks facing mortality or its imminent threat. You leave the movie shaken, but  also, at another level, relieved, since there isn’t a grandstanding speech  (except for one by a demagogue) or an instant of melodrama. “Contagion” confronts reality head on; it’s a brief against magical thinking. Soderbergh and  his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, may not have intended it, but their movie  could become an event in an ongoing political debate over the nature of American  life.

“Contagion” moves with harrowing concentration and speed: Beth Emhoff  (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is in Hong Kong on a business trip, has a night out in  Kowloon, where she eats a delicious-looking pork dish at a restaurant. On the  way back home, during a layover in Chicago, she sleeps with an old boyfriend,  and then returns to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), in Minneapolis, where she  suddenly becomes sick and dies. Was it encephalitis? Meningitis? At first, no  one realizes that a new, flulike virus has killed her. From Hong Kong, Chicago,  and Minneapolis, the virus soon spreads everywhere. Only at the end of the movie  do we find out how Beth got infected. (Earlier, a researcher analyzing the  virus’s cell structure says, “The wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”) The  scariest aspect of the story is that Beth wasn’t traipsing around in the jungle;  she was visiting one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. In flashbacks  to Hong Kong, cued by security-camera footage, we can see her smiling happily  as, after the restaurant dinner, she spends a pleasant, slightly drunken evening  in a glittering casino, during which this ordinary, messing-around woman infects  virtually everyone she comes into contact with. Suddenly widowed, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) tries to protect his daughter as the virus races from Hong Kong to Chicago, Minneapolis, London and Tokyo, triggering quarantines, quack cures and panic. While the mutating virus marches forward in time, “Contagion’s” epidemiologists and molecular biologists struggle to rewind the clock; only in discovering how and where MEV-1 originated and spread can it be understood and
controlled.

The film’s heroes are the doctors and the agencies charged with preventing a
real-life replica. At the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion
Cotillard
) tries to trace the virus back to Patient Zero. Inside the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence
Fishburne
) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) struggle to control the virus’ spread, while Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), at great personal risk, searches for a vaccine. “Our exposure to the real people like this is strictly through television sound bites,” Soderbergh
said. “But that’s the smallest and least interesting part of what they do.”

Once it may have been hard to buy the swift collapse of order that is made palpably real in “Contagion,” if Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath had not already set the stage. Mr. Soderbergh doesn’t milk your tears as things fall apart, but a passion that can feel like cold rage is inscribed in his images of men and women isolated in the frame, in the blurred point of view of the dying and in the insistent stillness of a visual style that seems like an exhortation to look. The virus seriously rattles your nerves, and you may want to start stockpiling antibacterial soap now. Yet what’s really scary in “Contagion” is how fast once-humming airports and offices, homes and cities empty out when push comes to shove comes to panic in the streets.

Scott Z. Burns, the film’s scriptwriter who researched the script with a prominent epidemiologist, said he was also interested in the potential perils of media speculation — personified by a double-dealing blogger played by Jude Law. “Unfiltered communication has the same sort of radioactive pulse in the world as a virus does,” said Burns, who wrote Soderbergh’s “The Informant.” “How do you contain information? How do you vaccinate against misinformation when you don’t have your own story to put out?”

While “Contagion” certainly doesn’t minimize the mortality of its pandemic, it’s ultimately a hopeful tale of how people facing extreme peril rise to the challenge. But the filmmakers
admit that they now look behind them when they hear someone cough. “It made me
nervous,” Soderbergh said of making “Contagion.” “Like Dr. Cheever says in the
movie, ‘We’re due.'”

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Scott Z. Burns; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by Cliff Martinez; production design by Howard Cummings; costumes by Louise Frogley; produced by Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Gregory Jacobs; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

CAST: Marion Cotillard (Dr. Leonora Orantes), Matt Damon (Mitch Emhoff), Laurence Fishburne (Dr. Ellis Cheever), Jude Law (Alan Krumwiede), Gwyneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff), Kate Winslet (Dr. Erin Mears), Bryan Cranston (Lyle Haggerty), Sanaa Lathan (Aubrey Cheever), Jennifer Ehle (Dr. Ally Hextall), Demetri Martin (Dr. David Eisenberg), Elliott Gould (Dr. Ian Sussman) and Griffin Kane (Clark Morrow).

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