As the house lights dimmed in the Venice Film Festival’s Darsena Theater before the beginning of Contagion, a man sitting just behind us let out a few rasping coughs. That’s not unusual in any movie house just before the feature starts; and journalists, for whom the world-premiere screening was held, are not a particularly robust bunch. Then Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a businesswoman on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, emitted the same hard bark — and in a few screen minutes her character was dead from the globe-girdling virus that is the subject of Steven Soderbergh’s deadly plausible new thriller. When the fellow one row back kept up his hacking, I wondered if he was the kind of “plant” that horror-movie producer William Castle used to put in theaters to make weird noises and scare the real customers.
Except that, with Contagion, the real fear comes when you leave the theater. Scott Z. Burns’s original script dramatizes, with brisk ruthlessness, the dangers of touching anyone who may be infected — or anything he or she may have touched. Remember Dennis Miller’s joke, back in the ’90s, that you had to worry about getting AIDS not just from people you had sex with but from people you wanted to have sex with? Well, this is a disease you could get from a family member, a coworker, a subway sneezer or anyone near anyone who comes near you. One of Contagion‘s creepiest scenes comes early in the film, when a distinguished research scientist (Elliott Gould) glances around a diner and instantly spots a dozen places where the virus could contaminate and swiftly kill a customer: the rim of a glass, the hands of a hash slinger, an unsterilized fork, a mouth that coughs.
The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed more than 50 million people, perhaps 5% of the world’s population at the time, and infected about 500 million. That catastrophe took two years to play out. Today, in a few days, a few people on transcontinental flights could unknowingly spread a much more severe plague. And if the virus is a new strain, as in Contagion, months could pass before it was isolated, years before a potent antidote could be found, produced, marketed and distributed. Innocence would be no protection; the only sure antidotes would be home confinement and a healthy paranoia.
Docudrama style, the movie weaves scenes of epidemiologists to locate the source of the virus and break its code with vignettes of ordinary folks facing mortality or its imminent threat. Knowing from his direction of the similarly sprawling Traffic that an audience needs famous actors as signposts in such a peripatetic narrative, Soderbergh cast Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston as officials at the Centers for Disease Control, Kate Winslet as a super-sleuth for the Epidemic Intelligence Service and Marion Cotillard as a doctor from the World Health Organization who tracks the virus back to Hong Kong. Matt Damon, playing Paltrow’s husband, is the frightened but resolute face of American citizenry; and Jude Law is a rogue blogger who is the first journalist to stumble onto the story and promptly puts the panic in pandemic.
This is Soderbergh’s 22nd feature in 22 years; his first was sex, lies, and videotape, followed by crowdpleasers like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve, Thirteen) capers and several defiantly indie efforts (Solaris, Bubble, Che, The Girlfriend Experience). Acting as his own cinematographer, under the name Peter Andrews, and producing many other films (Pleasantville, Far from Heaven, Syriana), Soderbergh is a whirling creative force with an elusive directorial personality. But the man does have a gift for organization, both in putting projects and actors together and in bringing clarity to teeming narratives — skills put to excellent use here. And in Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s drily off-kilter The Informant!, with Damon as a corporate whistle-blower with a secret agenda, he has found a crafty collaborator who knows his craft.
For a good hour, a very good first hour, the film efficiently accumulates small, terrifying incidents and images: Paltrow’s haggard face on the flight home; the flecks of froth on a man’s mouth; the refusal of a mortician to host funeral services for the victims; and, in this fastidious melodrama’s one uggy moment, the peeling back of a corpse’s scalp to allow an autopsy. Later, as the news spreads with the virus and terror propels the population into rabid belligerence, the movie sedates its pulse, softens its focus and threatens to become a straightfaced Zombieland. There’s also an unnecessary climactic kidnapping. But Burns and Soderbergh manage to tell their epidemiological epic in a hurtling, compact 105 minutes. Perhaps for purposes of concision, or because they wanted to skirt politics, the filmmakers omitted any pharma executives or federal or local politicians from their character list. That leaves a curious hole, but Contagion is a movie, not a miniseries.
If the film has a villain, it’s Law’s blogger, named Krumwiede (as in crumb-weed, which sounds like an eight-year-old’s insult), fanning genuine fear and fake cures. But Contagion does have a heroine in Ally Haskell (Jennifer Ehle), a Bio-Safety Lab doctor with the expertise and guts to risk her life to find a cure. It’s a treat to see Ehle, a winning, often underused actress, in a crucial movie role. Her warm, flinty performance, first among equals in a strong cast, is one of the prime lessons to take away from this intelligent Surgeon General’s advisory of a film. Another would be to wear rubber gloves and a cloth mouth-mask when you see Contagion. There might be a cougher nearby.