It starts with one person, as I suppose it always does. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an executive at a multinational headquartered in Minnesota. She is returning from Hong Kong, has a layover in Chicago and is fighting a cough. She has red eyes, flushed cheeks, and a fever. During her five-hour layover, she met with a former lover at a hotel for a quick fling before returning home to her second husband and her child from a first marriage. In a few dozen hours, she will become the first victim of a worldwide pandemic that will kill millions, if not billions, of people.
So begins Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant and befuddling Contagion (now showing at Bow Tie Cinemas.) Contagion has a lot of ground to cover–the rise of the worst epidemic in modern history, the potential end of society–and Soderbergh nails it perfectly… for about an hour. And then his epic vision begins to collapse in on itself, ignoring other countries, other peoples, and fixating, at last, almost exclusively on Americans, to the point where you want to ask Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns: you do know there’s other countries in the world, right?
First, let me commend both Burns and Soderbergh on the Emhoff family. Both Beth and Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon, outstanding as usual) have a complex family unit, but one that is not treated any differently. Beth had affairs in the past that have clearly affected the family; both Beth and Mitch have ex-wives and children from those marriages.
Beth is home for next to no time when she collapses on the kitchen floor and dies, an unfortunate foam appearing at her lips, a crust the color of butterscotch pudding glazing her mouth, both looking totally ludicrous (why people don’t just die, rather than have this goofy foam and crust is just plain silly.) Mitch cannot believe what has just happened–does this happen in America? It does, as his stepson, pulled from school, dies just as quickly. Soon, the contagion spreads, from Minnesota to Chicago to New York…
Soderbergh shifts his focus from the personal horrors of the Emhoff family to the struggles of the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. and the World Health Organization in Geneva to contain both the virus and the panic that it may create. At the center of this maelstrom is Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburn), a deputy director at the CDC; Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), a doctor with the U.S. organization who hits the field trying to contain the virus in Minnesota; and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) with the WHO who travels to China to get a handle on the crisis there. Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) is a CDC scientist trying to create a vaccine, and Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) is a doctor at a private company in San Francisco who, despite the government’s shutting him down, manages to isolate the virus, the crucial first step toward human survival.
As this story hums along, the cameras turn to the machinations of Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law, creepy and effective) a San Francisco blogger whose site, Truth Serum Now!, spreads rumors that a homeopathic remedy, forsythia, will cure this virus. He rants and rages and rages and rants, trying to get the ear of journalists, about government and pharmaceutical company conspiracies. He’s the metaphorical contagion, spreading falsehoods that cause irreparable harm to the millions who read his blog.
Got all that? If you were watching the movie you would, because Soderbergh is a master of this type of fractured narrative. The first half of Contagion is steady, the director in control, allowing his actors and the plot to build the necessary tension, which is palpable.
But then Contagion falters. Part of this is the strange limitation of its running time, which is an hour and forty-five minutes. Soderbergh’s made long, long movies before–Traffic and especially Che come to mind–so why he agreed to allow this sprawling story to be shoehorned into that truncated hundred and five minutes is beyond me.
Society begins to collapse. Illinois is under martial law, and Minnesota’s borders are sealed. This happens so swiftly, without the same patient gathering of details we saw when the disease was spreading, you get confused and can’t understand how we got here. You want to know more about the characters, want to see the first small failures in our ordered communities, the police not responding, the grocery stories shelves going bare, phones not working, etc. But it’s not there, probably because the filmmakers didn’t have the time.
And then the plot becomes, well, it becomes shallow. This contagion apparently is a crisis that a) only Americans can solve and b) only concerns Americans.
The WHO’s Dr. Orantes is kidnapped by a Chinese government official, so that his small village, ravaged by the disease, will “go to the front of the line” when the vaccine is found. Orantes later is seen spending time with the children of that hamlet, but this at the tail end of the movie. What happened in that time? I don’t know, nor do I know what happened in Africa, India, the rest of Asia, Mexico, South America… you name a country, it’s not there.
I guess, too, the scientists of Japan, China, and anywhere else can’t figure this thing out, either, or aren’t trying. Of course, only an Asian will go to the lengths of kidnapping to get results–Americans and Europeans would never do such a thing. (And when the switch is made later, for Cotillard and the serums, the double-cross is so obvious you want to scream.)
The disease began in Hong Kong, and there’s a very brief moment at the start of Contagion where we see a poor young man succumb to his illness. The young man is Li Fai (Chui Tien-you). He lives with his sister, played by Josie Ho. Both Ho and Chui are prominent Hong Kong actors, relegated by the plot to mere ciphers, bodies. Why?
I don’t expect a globe-hopping tour of chaos, but take it out of America a few times, please. And even then, the problems in our country resulting from the numerous deaths are contradictory and make little sense. At the center of this story, at first so effectively told, we suddenly are supposed to fixate on Mitch’s daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and the fact that she’s stuck in the house with her dad and cannot go on a date, or make snow angels with her cute boyfriend.
I italicized that because it’s a groan-inducing moment that almost literally made me want to slap the girl. Later, when the vaccines are being handed out via lottery, and little Jory discovers she has to remained quarantined for 144 days (a person’s birthdate determines vaccination–on day 1 it’s March 10, day 2 it’s May 27, and so on…) she bitches that she’s “going to lose spring and summer” and then texts cute boyfriend that she’s in “jail.”
Really? Is this girl so totally ignorant that she hasn’t experienced the countless dead (it’s in the millions, perhaps billions), the neighbors getting blown away by looters for food? Did she forget that her fucking step-mother and step-brother died in her own home?
And this question: when it’s clearly determined that society has collapsed, that food production has ground to a halt as people are terrified to leave their homes, well, who the hell is running T-Mobile so this dopey girl can text her complaints to her boyfriend?
Contagion also makes some troubling caricatures about bloggers, and suggests that the government and pharmaceutical companies are, in fact, loving and benevolent, while bloggers like Krumwiede are horrible, evil creatures. (As if bloggers and Twitterers weren’t going to at least partially feed the major news outlets in this situation as they have in the Middle East lately…) Soderbergh and Burns clearly hate bloggers, but worse, this is merely an unwelcome distraction and poor storytelling, especially considering the short run-time.
Toward the end there’s some ridiculous moments that are supposed to make you care about the characters you know little about, weighing down the second half like the water filling the front compartments of the Titanic, unbalancing the movie and sending it into the depths of mediocrity.
Finally, a greater question arises: what is the point of Contagion? To show us just how brave and effective the government is in its fight against disease? To show how awful bloggers can be? To make sure we’re squirting hand sanitizer on our mitts after every turn of the door knob or handshake?
I don’t know. That’s a problem with a Soderbergh picture, though. The director himself seems fixated on creating a body of work that is professional, clean, well-acted and edited, entertaining, but devoid of any heart, of any larger context. Did we talk about Traffic and its critique of U. S. drug policy in the months and years following the movie? We did not–we spoke about the mastery of the film. Che did nothing to increase our interest or understanding of that complex man. So too, with Contagion. We will marvel at Soderbergh’s skill, his light touch with his actors, and how the movie kept us riveted.
But it does little else. Contagion is a movie for people who want an “intelligent” night out after their good dinner, who want their complacent, safe world shaken ever so slightly as they drive home, but are eager to have those fears wiped clean by an after-movie screening of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then a good night’s sleep. The movies can do more. I’m just not sure Soderbergh can.