‘Contagion’ creates infectious atmosphere

By Nicholas Coviello

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It really is stunning how quickly the stale, end of summer cinema can blossom into the quality-driven early fall lineup. After weeks of box office flops, the fall movie season could not have come quickly enough. ‘Contagion,’ from director Steven Soderbergh (‘Traffic,’ ‘Ocean’s Eleven’), is one of the first out of the gate. Soderbergh isn’t satisfied with the trite disaster movie trope of a tight-knit group of people who somehow manage to save the day before anyone important is hurt or killed. On the contrary, no one is out of harm’s reach in ‘Contagion.’ In layman’s terms: everyone is in the same boat.

‘Contagion’ focuses on several disparate characters, forming through them a sense of the global reaction when a deadly virus starts spreading around the world. The story is carefully crafted around this array of perspectives. We have the average citizenry, represented by the Emhoff family (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow), the medical world, represented by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the global media, represented by journalist/blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). While each character follows his/her own personal arc, their respective individual concerns are always superseded by the global nature of the crisis.

Accordingly, the film’s most powerful images occur independently of the characters, instead presenting the population as a whole. Soderbergh captures astoundingly well in these scenes a feeling of helplessness. One such sequence depicts an overflowing hospital and its overwhelmed staff, panicked and without any hope of treating most of the swarming patients. Another has a funeral home being forced to refuse admittance to infected bodies, leaving their families to grieve in the open.

The film’s emotional milieu is one of paranoia. Krumwiede claims to have discovered a cure and subsequently attempts to reveal the CDC as fraudulent and corrupt. In this scenario, Soderbergh effectively raises a few issues that come with being in the spotlight during a crisis –

the rampant scapegoating of those in power demonstrated by the public response to the CDC and the reactionary discrediting of those who would offer a solution, like Krumwiede and his supposed cure.

The style in which the subject material is presented gives the film its impact. Simply, it makes it frightening how things can come together. ‘Contagion’ lacks obviously central characters for a reason. The viewer’s job is not necessarily to form connections with the on-screen protagonists. A lack of personal background or indulgent screen time for the characters on screen desensitizes the viewer from empathizing with any particular character, moving the emotional response of the viewing process into the general sphere. In other words, the film attempts to make the viewer empathize with the human suffering on a global scale, which is an ambitious task.

‘Contagion‘ is scary both in subject matter and in how well it is put together. The film provides an experience that depends heavily on the magnitude of its material and the delicacy with which it is pieced together. In the end, it is an amazing demonstration of how quickly society can become unraveled in a state of panic. Depicting global chaos in a humanistic tone is a tall order. ‘Contagion‘ manages to achieve it.

Nicholas Coviello can be reached at [email protected]