“Cover Your Mouth!” Contagion

The more I think about Contagion, the better it seems. While I was watching it I kept on waiting for one of the kinds of melodramatic flourishes Hollywood disaster movies always seem to have — like, the worldwide epidemic that sets Contagion‘s plot in motion was caused by terrorists! Martians! Russians! — and was, in the moment, disappointed when nothing of the sort happened. Then I remembered: that’s actually a good thing.

That’s Contagion‘s greatest strength, more so even than the uniformly excellent cast, Steven Soderbergh’s terrific direction, or even the excellent music: it goes easy on the melodrama. The variation on Movie Plague we see here, a variation on bird flu that is to regular bird flu what a pterodactyl is to a sparrow, kills so fast that there’s no time for long, maudlin death scenes. People flip out about the fact that everybody’s dying and anyone could be infected, but Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns don’t dwell terribly long on that. Their interest lies more with the people who are trying to halt the plague, and the fear of the not-yet-sick of contracting said plague.

While that avoidance of melodrama is to Soderbergh and Burns’ credit, it does make the movie seem a bit small at times, which is a bit of a handicap when dealing with a global crisis. Telling its story from multiple perspectives helps a bit, and several of the many protagonists are quite good (Matt Damon is excellent as a Midwestern father widowed by the plague — that’s not a spoiler, by the way, it’s in the trailer — as is Laurence Fishburne as the embattled head of the center for Disease Control) but others’ stories are underdeveloped. Jennifer Ehle is excellent in a too-small role as the one scientist who has a shot of curing the plague, and several other actors take turns in will-they-or-won’t-they-die roles that end up either cutting short or subsuming interesting character arcs. Also, there’s a major suspension of disbelief involved in Jude Law’s performance as a blogger, he’s nowhere near good-looking enough to be credible.

Seriously, though, as with all movies of this sort, there’s a bit of a credibility issue when the worldwide catastrophe against which humanity is doing battle is a super-fast-acting infectious disease. This is not to say that such things aren’t horrible and nasty and that we shouldn’t take care guarding against them. And Contagion deserves a bit of credit for caring more about grounding its story in credible (or credible-sounding) science than a lot of other Killer Disease movies. It’s just, even a bird flu on steroids like the kind in Contagion wouldn’t kill people that quickly. It may be possible, but you’d have to think more of the main cast would have ended up dead if the disease really was that hardcore. Unless it only kills Oscar winners, in which case the mortality rate is about right. (Note: not a spoiler, at least one of the Oscar winners makes it through the picture alive, as did the director.)

Steven Soderbergh did quite a job with this material, going a long way to get the audience to overlook the picture’s credibility issues with some wonderful little touches, like in the opening montage chronicling the initial spread of the disease, which is as tight a bit of almost entirely visual exposition as you could ask for. And, while this lessens over the course of the story, in the first half at least there are a lot of wonderful little moments involving the actors’ hands, which are pointed out subtly but noticeably, to the point where you can almost feel a number of people get infected. Once that part of the story is past, we get a number of quiet, beautifully observed moments of people dealing with the crises, with any number of “wow was that cheesy” moments in the script offset by Soderbergh giving them a bit of distance with his camera. (As is his custom, he served as his own pseudonymous director of photography, meaning crediting him alone for this is less ambiguous than it is with some other filmmakers.)

Contagion isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it doesn’t pretend to be. What it is is an extremely well-directed and acted movie in a well-established form. That it doesn’t succumb to the usual histrionics of the genre is to its credit, though there’s a ceiling for the praise one can laud on a movie whose greatest asset has to be defined in terms of absence of something dumb. And paradoxically, the fact that it’s actually kind of good may keep it from having the kind of oh-my-God-it’s-so-bad entertainment value that dumber, more poorly-executed disease movies have by virtue of being so dumb and poorly-executed. This quandary, of a movie’s greatest weakness being that it’s actually kind of good, is an irony that this one’s director would probably appreciate, if he wasn’t the guy who directed it.

Rather than end on that note, though, let it suffice to repeat that Contagion is a well-made movie that I liked. Matt Damon is really excellent, and the very last scene before it cuts to the credits is a wonderfully ironic touch. It’s certainly worth seeing.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

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