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Whether dealing with thieves, revolutionaries, prostitutes or drug traffickers, Steven Soderbergh, over the course of his undeniably impactful career, has analyzed his subjects in a manner befitting his personality: distressingly closely and with boundless curiosity. He's a man clearly interested in cultural institutions, though he's not one to recklessly glamorize or demonize them.
Contagion is his best film in years for that reason. It's an examination of governmental and societal bureaucracies under enormous pressure, but it's performed with a germophobe's discomfort, a bookworm's data vomit and a master storyteller's intimacy.
Matt Damon is Mitch Emhoff, a loving father of two whose cheating, globe-hopping wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to have been the inadvertent carrier monkey of a "novel" viral strand that kills and spreads quickly. When Paltrow seizes on their kitchen floor, things happen in a whir of confusion and denial. His wife and son are dead, he's told, though he and his daughter appear to be immune to the unknown disease.
Other patches of similar fatalities pop up all over the globe, drawing in a bevy of players, including a butt-covering Centers for Disease Control operative (Laurence Fishburne), a blogging "truther" (Jude Law), a ground-level doctor (Kate Winslet), an abducted World Health Organization official (Marion Cotillard), a Nobel Prize-winning epidimiologist (Jennifer Ehle) and others who must juggle information gathering with vaccine testing, Homeland Security meddling and mass panic.
Most surprising is how long it takes for everything to unfold. Soderbergh shows the long, excruciating build-up and is all too aware that even with epidemic fears, dwindling resources and no real answers, the American public is so large and sedentary that even hysteria takes a good while for which to work up the energy. We see the semi-calming talking-head cable interviews; the makeshift signs assuring folks that homeopathic remedies are available; the collective politeness of single-file lines.
Eventually, those break down, too, though always in unexpected, violent ways. Fishburne's soothing tones are undermined entirely by a rogue Facebook post. Jude Law's self-serving paranoia leads him to advise his millions of followers not to take any vaccine. Winslet enlists FEMA while scouting a triage space that looks disquietingly like the Louisiana Superdome.
This is no mere disaster movie; it's a meticulous doomsday scenario imagined by someone with a clear need to visualize the worst as a salve to his anxiety. In that sense, Contagion crackles with visceral immediacy and smart narrative thrust. One can't help but wonder if Soderbergh's perverse stacking of the cast with cherished character actors in nearly every speaking part is part of his self-comforting. Whatever the case, it's a distracting flaw.
That's not true, however, of Damon, whose presence never feels like Hollywood largesse. Rather, he seems to only get more natural, inviting and Everyman with each role. Here, he exudes fatherly protection with a henpecked vulnerability. Where the world's fate rests on the shoulders of red-carpet royalty, Damon takes seriously his responsibility as the audience proxy, and it's much appreciated.
Part of that credit goes to Soderbergh, who's spent the last decade with Damon in his viewfinder, and also to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), who has a lock on the actor's subtle mannerisms. And in a film that calls so much attention to the number of times people touch their faces or clear their throats — an effect that makes a packed theater feel like a Petri dish — that's no small feat.
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.