Finishing Touches

Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon).

WHEN I LEFT THE THEATER after I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, my hands were shaking so hard that it took me fifteen minutes to text the words: WHAT A SCARY, CONVINCING RIDE. A few days later I saw the movie again, and even though I knew what was going to happen and to whom, it was no less unnerving. Contagion is a champion sprinter–paced entertainment that is in no way escapist, which is why it sticks with you long after the fact. “Somewhere out there, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” is how one CDC medical biologist explains the genesis of a virus that is on track to kill one in twelve persons on the planet unless a vaccine is concocted to stop it. This scenario—and the details of its depiction—is not only plausible on the screen; it is a glimpse of an almost inevitable real-life catastrophe.

Like the lethal bug, Contagion is itself a hybrid, comprising nearly equal parts of two genres, both dear to the 1970s: the disaster thriller epitomized in such Irwin Allen productions as The Towering Inferno (1974) and the investigative procedural, of which the telling modern American example is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 All the President’s Men. David Fincher, a director who seems to share a radar with Soderbergh, also used Pakula’s “follow the money” saga as a map for his 2007 Zodiac. In Contagion, epidemiologists and medical researchers follow the airborne virus, which is largely transmitted by touch (sick person coughs into her hand, sticks that hand into a bowl of nuts in an airport bar, and in days, the virus is killing people—gruesomely—all over the world). At a moment when movies—particularly art movies—are praised for their “tactility,” Soderbergh, one of the least tactile and most sardonic great directors in world cinema, has made a movie whose mantra is “do not touch.” By evoking tactility in the negative, Contagion makes you aware of the feel of every bacteria-laden surface you put your hand to. I’ll never grasp a subway railing again.

Tonally, the movie that Contagion most resembles is Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with its chilly, clinical depiction of the implacability of the natural world and the limited ability of humans to understand or control it, or, more to the point, to challenge its desecration for the supposed benefit of one species—our own. The big difference: Birds are visible to the naked eye, viruses not. Thus the movie opens in darkness, through which comes the sound of a woman discreetly coughing. The sound provokes nervous, knowing titters in the audience, which will continue intermittently until the dire implications of the situation trump the familiar conventions of the epidemic/horror/disaster genre. Soon we see Gwyneth Paltrow, her face pale and sweaty, standing in an airport lounge talking on the phone. Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, who is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and has stopped off in Chicago for an afternoon quickie with an old boyfriend before returning to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon, a wonderful everyman), and her young son in Minneapolis. The voice we hear on the other end of her phone connection is that of the boyfriend (rendered with repellent smarm by the director himself). As Beth chats, the title “Day 2” appears on the screen. (“Where was ‘Day 1’?” you might ask at this point, but no worry: Soderbergh’s best twist on the genre is to save the first for last—and what a reveal it is.) Still chatting and coughing, Beth reaches into the aforementioned bowl of nuts and the camera follows her hand, again provoking knowing laughter. As usual, Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, is his own DP, using the latest model of the RED camera. There’s nothing flashy or even beautiful about the camerawork, but like the virus itself and the scientists and health professionals who are called into action against it, it is notably efficient.

Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, stills from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Left: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). Right: Dr. Ellis Cheever and Dr. Ally Hextall (Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle).

In about ten screen minutes, Beth will be dead and autopsied (her scalp peeled back to bare a brain so devastated by the virus that the CDC and the WHO immediately go into overdrive). It will of course be noted that her death, and that of her boyfriend soon after, fit the horror film convention (you enjoy sex, you die), but the movie’s punch line hammers another nail in her coffin—this is a bit of a spoiler so some of you might want to stop reading here—by making us aware of her role as a charming front person for the corporation whose pillaging of the environment led to the meeting of “the wrong pig with the wrong bat.” Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns deliver information so quickly and concisely and with such a light touch that the beauty of the payoff (and the fact that the movie ends by coming full circle, leaving you to imagine the next round rather than putting a new beginning on the screen as is customary in the genre) might escape you on first viewing. Movie critics were heard at press screenings debating plot points and character facets, all of which are crystal clear if you attend to every line of dialogue and the details of every image. Soderbergh proposes an audience workout, which calls for the speed and concentration that the professionals on the screen (the actors and the characters they play) bring to their jobs. The propulsive pace is maintained throughout by Stephen Mirrione’s lucid, elliptical crosscutting among at least half a dozen major narrative strands; Cliff Martinez’s synth score; and Soderbergh’s direction, which has the actors speed-walking while talking whenever possible.

Like the Irwin Allen disaster pictures, Contagion is laden with stars. The difference is that Soderbergh’s big names (Damon, Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law) eschew glamorous makeup and put aside their egos to act in the best interest of the machine of the movie. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Contagion is its liberal politics. The movie makes an excellent case for the professionals who work for big government agencies. Not that they aren’t above breaking a rule or two when it’s a question of “taking care of the people in my lifeboat,” as the deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) puts it, knowing fully that his moral position could cost him not only his job but his life. The movie’s consummate maverick good guy is CDC researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (a perfect Jennifer Ehle), who not only chances using the research of an eccentric independent (Elliott Gould) simply because he’s better at what they both do than she is, but also, in order to bypass lengthy human trial protocols, risks her life by testing her vaccine on herself. If there is hope for human survival, it lies with a well-funded, compassionate federal government. The villains of the piece are the drug companies, hedge funds, corporate antienvironmentalists, and an ace journalist (Law) turned to blogging—although not by choice—whose conspiracy paranoia and desire for power and big bucks result in his promoting an unproven homeopathic medicine that will cost millions of lives.

Tactile-phobic and anything but touchy-feely, Contagion nevertheless has its extremely moving moments. Take, for example, the image of Ehle, covered in her anticontagion suit and helmet, standing alone in her research lab smiling in gratitude and awe at the monkey who has survived her experimental vaccine. I’d like to believe that the monkey smiled back.

Contagion opens in theaters and IMAX on Friday, September 9.