D/DP: Steven Soderberg. W: Scott Z. Burns. Starring: Laurence Fishburne/Kate Winslet/Matt Damon/Gwyneth Paltrow/Jude Law/Marion Cotillard/Jennifer Ehle/Demetri Martin/Elliot Gould/Bryan Cranston/John Hawkes/Anna Jacoby-Heron.
And so the fall film season begins. For those of us who braved the summers ups and downs, it is now time to gorge ourselves on the films that have been hoarded until the fall for award season. This season begins with Contagion, helmed by Steven Soderberg, who not only directed the film, but also acted as the director of photography. This is incredibly significant for this film as it allows such a synthesis between image and story. And although the film sports an impressive cast, the cast is especially secondary to the construct and visuals Soderberg creates.
His film is organized by day as an outbreak of a highly infectious disease (it is transmitted by touch) wrecks havoc in our modern world. As the American Center for Disease Control battles politics, scientists battle deconstructing the disease and coming up with an antidote, journalists tackled the information highway and how people are being helped and, of course on the ground, relief effort is being organized. Clearly there is a lot to be balanced. Yet, Soderberg never allows the film to run away with him or become sentimental. He keeps everything crisp, clean and compartmentalized in his story. There is not some grand cute way that every one is connected. Rather the audience is drawn into the realism of the disease, its ease at claiming life, and how fast reality changes. Certain images still haunt me, the looting of stores will remind some of Katrina (and maybe the recent riots in London) and the mass graves of bodies hearkens back to many a famous genocides of history. It is these images, pacing, and the distance of the camera from it’s actors at key moments that truly makes the film work.
Contagion ultimately works because it’s topical and has a clear story to tell. However, certain details are only explained on a debriefing after the film has concluded. As an audience member you must rack your brain to figure out where certain story lines went or why they were abandoned. Unfortunately, this wins over any true memory of an important performance. Matt Damon’s new thicker dad look works well here as the first man to experience the tragedy of the disease’s power. Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays his wife, convincingly dies in the beginning of the film and that moment is probably the most memorable of all. Everyone else does their best, but Contagion is ultimately not about them, but rather how they fit into the story of the epidemic.