Open on: a too-convincingly suffering Gwyneth Paltrow. No makeup, sweat on her brow, hair frazzled, face hollow, coughing and pallid in an airport bar. This is a film about an epidemic. We know that she isn’t just sick. We know this isn’t a common cold or the result of too much time spent flying over the Pacific. We know that she’s a carrier, that she’s dying, that her death is inevitable. We think of the human beings herded like cattle into closed cabins alongside her. Using the same tin can restroom. The flight attendants picking up the garbage her hands have touched. The germs tracked everywhere. Carry-on baggage lifted, tickets exchanged, bacteria like a cloudburst spraying with each poorly covered cough. These people will all die. They will get off of the airplane and proliferate. They will use public toilets, buy food, grab a drink, they will hire limos and climb into cabs, they will go home to houses filled with family members, apartments filled with people, with loved ones, with children. They will go to work, their children will go to school and travel on buses, on trains, in carpools. They’ll think it’s “no big deal.” They’ll load up on vitamin C, cough suppressants, suck on drops. They will touch their faces. They will cough in their hands. They will blow their noses. They will not wash after each of these incidents, in between all of them. Later, they will seize. They will freeze up, their muscles will spasm, they will foam at the mouth and collapse without warning, biting down on tongues before someone even reaches to call 911.
The cycle continues. The R0 is too high. 1 enters a space of 50. 50 enter a space of 100. 100 proliferate in different directions. We enter crisis mode. Epidemic. Pandemic. Scrambles for vaccines and government warnings. Don’t call me a germaphobe, I’m a hypochondriac. There’s a difference. I’m also a pragmatic cynic. I have a practical understanding of how people react in a crisis. Contagion is my own personal worst case scenario. It’s global hell, a feasible apocalypse, a pat on the back that said “don’t worry, you’re not crazy, all those things you think could happen totally could.” It itched. Oh, it itched. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the only film I’ve ever seen in a theater capable of making me feel as though the room were closing in. In that first 20 minutes, as our ensemble cast climbed ever closer to crisis, as we watched disease transmit without effort and scientists doubt themselves, I sat stock still and crawling out of my skin. My nose itched, but I couldn’t touch it. I couldn’t touch my face because Contagion for me was essentially the scariest goddamn movie I’ve ever seen.
That is, of course, a hearty endorsement. Contagion is as effectively entertaining as it is terrifying. Steven Soderbergh has offered us a smart disaster film rooted firmly in the everyday, in the supposedly innocuous exchanges that have the potential to be life altering (or ending). This is the NPR of disaster cinema; a virtual This American Life episode of “how I survived the outbreak.” He balances the B-movie outbreak action with a dry dose of sobering science and the sort of governmental exchanges that involve bland teleconferences instead of inappropriately patriotic national addresses. As a thriller, Contagion is catching. Perhaps this is because the story seems almost patterned off of the virus itself; beginning intimate and incubated before expanding exponentially. We ride out the waves and leap from one victim to the next, city, state, country, world. Soderbergh does for the CDC what he did for the war on drugs in Traffic, only here the results are more immediately plausible. Doctors become heroes, scientists cope with red tape, bloggers disseminate scare tactics, all in the span of a rapid 100 minutes.
In many respects, Contagion is really just tremendously taut. From moment to moment, this is a glossy picture stylish in its warning embrace of chaos. There’s the suggestion that our editors have worked overtime to cull together the appropriate montage of transmission, to make it so the camera sees all and spares little. In our early scenes, we catch every possible moment of exchange. We want to flinch as Gwyneth Paltrow’s adulteress character, Beth Emhoff, greets her young son, as she hugs her husband (Matt Damon). We track each person she came in contact with at the bacterial ground zero and see them flu-prone, bugged, waning, and we want to yell at them to stop. What we want them to stop we don’t know, but it grates. Of course, Contagion is not a perfect specimen. The film casts an impossibly wide net and we accept that in many ways it would be virtually impossible to do real justice to so many disparate human interest stories. Still, they give it a good go. Soderbergh has, as per usual, assembled an insane line-up of talent for this humble little work of political horror. A-listers run about and drop like flies, often seeming too recognizable for their short lived subplots. As Beth’s husband Mitch, Matt Damon comes out on top here, though he shares his billing with Laurence Fishburne’s CDC head Dr. Cheever and a sneakily good performance from Jennifer Ehle (notably from the Firthy version of Pride and Prejudice). More distracting, though, are the subplots that feel like unresolved afterthoughts written to fit in one more big name. Marion Cotillard’s role here is particularly disposable, and distracts from the general tension by making us wonder if maybe we missed some vital tie-in somewhere along the way. Imperfections aside, no film has made me want to stock up on canned goods and sanitizer more. I left that theater with my hoodie sleeves pulled over hands and opened all doors with my back. As I write this, someone outside is coughing. I’m going to have to hide.
Before I do: Steven Soderbergh, please don't quit making movies. Painting is fun and all, but, maybe you can just devote a few hours a day or something?