Whereas “Outbreak” (1995) gets comparatively cartoonish as it wrings drama from a viral pandemic, “Contagion” (2011) – its main competition for “most famous outbreak movie” – is more level-headed and sober. But Steven Soderbergh is so confident at the tiller of this worldwide procedural that the tension is enhanced, not lessened, as he adheres to the realistic scenarios in Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay.
“Contagion” is homework, in a way – you’ll get a better handle on our current coronavirus situation, along with the positive feeling that comes from knowing that COVID-19 isn’t as dangerous as the fictional MEV-1. (But still, wash your hands and keep your social distance.)
In its early stages, “Contagion” successfully predicts things we’ve seen this month, including panic buying. The movie fails to specifically predict a run on toilet paper, though. As workaholic CDC scientist Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) notes, the public’s specific reaction can’t be predicted.
But the fact that people will panic can be predicted, which is why “Contagion” spends some time showing officials’ attempts to suppress knowledge of the disease while CDC scientists attempt to suppress the disease itself. These scenes might’ve made me angry in 2011 – or three weeks ago – but not so much after seeing the panic-buying phenomenon in the days after the cancellation or delay of almost all American sports.
That’s not to say Soderbergh’s film is pro- or anti-government official. He and Burns portray everyone in the massive cast of characters as a human being. CDC official Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) wants his charge, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslett), transported back to Atlanta after she falls ill in Minneapolis while investigating the virus’ source. It’s hard to argue with his point that she fell ill on the job, and is therefore entitled to special consideration. But other actions of Cheever’s fall into a gray area, such as tipping off his fiancée (Sanaa Lathan) to leave soon-to-be-quarantined Chicago to join him in Atlanta.
Matt Damon’s Mitch Emhoff is an Average Joe, so he doesn’t have the benefit of such a tip; he’s stuck in quarantined Minneapolis, which falls into such civil disarray that it resembles Detroit. Mitch’s wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) had unknowingly brought the virus back from a Hong Kong trip. Her story opens the film on “Day 2,” and she’s dead soon after. We don’t see “Day 1” until the very end, and it’s an amazing way to go into the credits.
Mitch is holed up in his house with daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and their situation ranges from terrifying – gunshots from robbers across the street (so much for “Minnesota nice”) – to mundane stir-craziness. Jory wants to see her boyfriend, but – as we know from the coronavirus – human contact needs to be minimized. Indeed, the phrase “social distancing” is used by Cheever in a TV news interview.
As Cliff Martinez’s low-key but propulsive score drives us along, “Contagion” doesn’t take political sides or stances. There’s stuff here for people who trust the government, as we see several admirable state-funded scientists; and stuff for those who don’t. The value of gun ownership is starkly illustrated when Mitch calls 911 to report the robbers and can’t get through because of the high volume of calls.
But the film does illustrate a lot of situations, letting viewers form their own opinions. The CDC instructs a doctor in a private lab to destroy his sample of the virus; this is ostensibly for the sake of safety, but it also means one less lab working the problem. Top-down planning means tighter control, but also slower progress, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 outbreak. Artificially slowing scientific progress could cost lives. Yet a rushed-out vaccine could have unknown side effects.
Jude Law’s independent journalist Alan Krumwiede represents the voice of a populace who feel the mainstream media is a microphone for governmental organizations. He does both good things and bad things with the platform of his blog; his storyline colors the film in a fascinating gray.
“Contagion” is smart and well-researched. Burns draws from past epidemics and pandemics, and the closing credits thank the CDC for their cooperation in the filmmaking process. A possible downside is that it so consciously avoids tear-jerking drama that a viewer might long for more of that – although Damon shines in a notable moment where emotions break through. While Mitch’s situation – locked inside, subsisting on Army-doled rations — seemingly leaves time for mourning, he perhaps subconsciously puts it on hold.
Watched in 2020, “Contagion” is prophetic and harrowing. Yet you might feel better after following a narrative where a virus wins some battles against humanity, but not the war.