Imagining how another director might have handled Contagion is a fun thought experiment. The subject matter—a highly communicable and deadly flu virus sweeping the globe—is the stuff of shrieking headlines and showy thrillers. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) might have given the movie a gritty, grimy look with a panicky moving camera and a grim air. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) might have created a glossy sheen with a few bravura action sequences and an underlying streak of sentimentality. Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) might have made it unbearably tense and hyper-realistic and fast-moving. Michael Bay (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) might have, I don’t know, lustily panned up the legs of a Victoria’s Secret model and blown a lot of shit up.
But Steven Soderbergh directs Contagion, and he brings his typical coolly imperturbable style to a story from which one expects perturbance, so to speak. The tone of the movie often feels oddly detached from the terror and death onscreen, as if we’re looking over the shoulder of a disinterested (but not uninterested) alien. That keeps Contagion from being thrilling, but it also keeps the movie from being sensationalistic, and without a frantic buzz, the movie is able to explore quieter moments behind the scenes and offstage entirely. Paradoxically, its very detachment makes it humane.
According to the scene-setting subtitles, the movie opens, ominously enough, on Day 2. A business exec (Gwyneth Paltrow) is returning home to Minnesota with a fever and a raspy cough as a souvenir from Hong Kong. She has a seizure, her frightened husband (Matt Damon) calls 911, and she dies at the hospital. The doctors can’t explain it, but there are similar cases in Chicago, in London, in China and Japan. People start to piece things together—the director of the Centers for Disease Control (Laurence Fishburne), a CDC field operative (Kate Winslet), a scientist with the CDC (Jennifer Ehle), an investigator from the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard), a conspiracy-spouting blogger (Jude Law)—but the disease spreads rapidly, along with rumor and fear and panic.
The movie bounces from character to character as the virus becomes an epidemic. To some extent, Soderbergh uses the same subtle color-coding he employed in Traffic—Minnesota is very blue, China tends to look gold, and so forth—but it’s mainly the masterful editing that holds the film together. Despite all the geographical and temporal leaps, despite the enormous cast of characters, despite the scientific jargon, Contagion is never disorienting. Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and film editor Stephen Mirrione present the darkly realistic storyline clearly and pace it deliberately. The craftsmanship is impeccable.
It helps, too, that the cast is ridiculously deep, with enormously talented actors in even the smaller roles. (I haven’t even mentioned John Hawkes as a janitor, Elliot Gould as a scientist in the private sector, Enrico Colantoni as a homeland security official, Bryan Cranston as a military man, Chin Han as a Chinese epidemiologist, Sanaa Lathan as Fishburne’s fiancée, or Anna Jacoby-Heron as Damon’s daughter.) Most of the actors don’t have more than a handful of scenes and a few dozen lines to create their characters, but that’s invariably enough.
And with the notable exception of Jude Law’s character—a venal, duplicitous, amoral fraud who would twirl a mustache if he had one—those characters are remarkably human, well-meaning but vulnerable to lapses in judgment, simply trying to handle their small corners of the crisis as best they can. Some fear that the virus is part of a terrorist attack, but that fear is ungrounded. There isn’t any big villain here (Law’s character is merely a parasitic opportunist), just a terrible natural disaster that people face with varying degrees of courage and integrity. That’s not cinematic in a big blockbuster sense, but it’s genuinely compelling and beautifully humanistic in its own reserved, geeky way.