‘Contagion’: A gruesomely timed portrait of airborne infection and urban panic

Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion. ()
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Two people in Hazmat suits stand over a mass grave in a vacant lot in Minneapolis. There is snow on the ground. The city has run out of body bags, so the bodies lie wrapped in blankets and the odd sheet of plastic. The bodies are piled on top of each other in a heap.

Seen from overhead, with one truck meandering along the empty city street at the edge of the vacant lot, the only sign of life is those two remaining figures, looking down into the mass grave. The scope of the death is incomprehensible, to us in the audience, and to the two guys in the Hazmat suits, and the scene unfolds in a bleak silence. Scenes like this are what make Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion a true thriller.

Contagion opens with a black screen, and we hear a rasping, deep cough. Then we see Gwyneth Paltrow, sitting in what is an airport bar, without makeup, coughing and looking ill. Her phone rings. She has a brief conversation with a man who brings a smile to her face, and it is clear that she just had a romantic tryst with him. He hears her cough and asks if she is okay. “No, I’m fine, I’m just jet-lagged,” she says.

She hangs up, reaches into the bowl of peanuts on the bar and eats a few. She hands her credit card to the waitress and the camera follows its passage to the cash register. Soderbergh creates a claustrophobic, germophobic energy in one or two shots, and we don’t even know what the movie is about yet.

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Turns out Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) is returning to Minneapolis from a business trip to Hong Kong. Through the opening sequence, we see other people—a model with dark circles under her eyes on her way to a photo shoot in London, a Japanese businessman on a plane, a Hong Kong kid falling into the street outside of a market—getting sick with alarming rapidity. They clutch at their throats, they fall into seizures, foam erupts from their mouths.

Beth Emhoff returns home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and teenage daughter, and quickly succumbs, dying a few days later. The brilliance of having Gwyneth Paltrow die in the first ten minutes is indicative of Contagion’s boldness.

At the autopsy, the alarmed technicians look at her brain and can’t believe what they are seeing. Mitch is quarantined, but he doesn’t get sick. The CDC is notified. The World Health Organization monitors the growing epidemic from Geneva. A man dies suddenly on a bus in Tokyo and someone catches it on video.

A maniacal blogger (is there any other kind, as far as Hollywood is concerned?) in San Francisco gets hold of the video, puts it on his blog, and, of course, it goes viral.

What is the virus? How do you catch it? There is barely any time to consider these questions. The incubation period is only a couple of days.

With a script by the talented Scott Burns, who collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant, Contagion is a multi-tentacled story following not only Mitch’s experience of the epidemic but multiple characters. The script mirrors the epidemic itself, with characters proliferating and then disappearing.

Contagion is not a personal story. This impersonal aspect is reflected in Soderbergh’s style, with dark cool interiors and chilling shots of completely empty airports and highways. The characters aren’t so much sketches as they are fragments, given to us in brief bursts. The situation is too dire to connect to just one individual.

Laurence Fishburne plays Dr. Ellis Cheever, the head of the CDC, who struggles with his team to understand how the virus is operating and where it began. An officious and tensely intelligent Kate Winslet plays Dr. Erin Mears, a doctor with the CDC who is sent to Minneapolis to investigate the death of Beth Imhoff. Marion Cotillard also plays a doctor, only she works for the World Health Organization and she is sent to Hong Kong to look into the deaths there. Jennifer Ehle plays a research scientist with the CDC who works around the clock trying to understand how the virus works and also come up with a vaccination. Elliot Gould is an independent doctor, also working with viral cells until he is shut out by the CDC. The wonderful Sanaa Lathan plays Dr. Cheever’s wife, holed up in Chicago on a business trip, and Dr. Cheever makes the unethical and yet understandable move to inform his wife of the virus exploding in Minneapolis and tells her over the phone to “get in your car and drive to Atlanta. Now.” She is told to not tell anyone but of course she puts in a call to her best friend to give her the heads-up.

Jude Law plays Alan Krumweide, a dirty-toothed madman who runs a blog called Truth Serum Now and he has, as he will tell anyone who will listen, “12 million unique visitors.” He pontificates on his site about government corruption and conspiracy theories, he shouts “print media is dying” at his friend at a local newspaper, and his research runs neck-and-neck with those people in hazmat suits at the CDC.

Panic is as much a virus as the virus itself.

With all of these stories in the air, you may think the film could get bogged in trying to sort them all out with back stories. But Contagion does not go that route. The ethical and practical issues of such a pandemic stand front-and-center, and with our recent scares regarding bird flu and H1N1 Contagion is not only timely but timeless.

The human race has been terrified of disease and sickness since the beginning of time. Plagues have periodically wiped out vast numbers of us. The Black Plague in 1348 killed an estimated 30-60 percent of Europe’s population. It had to have felt like a judgment from above. Boccaccio’s The Decameron, written in the plague’s wake, tells the story of a group of men and women who, in fleeing the Black Death, hide out in Florence for a couple of weeks telling stories to one another. It is a humanist reaction to random brutality.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was in London in 1665 when the Great Plague hit, wiping out 100,000 people. His “journal of the plague year” is a gripping eyewitness account of those events.

The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed an estimated 3 percent of the entire world population. That’s 50 million people.

Just this past August a man visiting the United States, who had the measles but didn’t know it, took a ride on an Amtrak train. Once he got the diagnosis, the department of health, with the help of Amtrak, tried to contact every passenger who had been on that train (many of whom were not vaccinated for measles). Measles is on the rise. We are vulnerable, we humans. We are able to forget that we live surrounded by bacteria and potentially deadly viruses waiting to leap into a human host, but on some level we know how vulnerable we are.

Contagion, with its relentless closeups of hands, hands, hands, touching things, touching each other, reminds us of our vulnerability in every shot.

The sections of the film dealing with the official reaction to the growing epidemic are the strongest. When do you alert people to the dangers? And what are the dangers? How does the virus pass from person to person?

Dr. Ellis Cheever, going on a nighttime news show to talk about the epidemic, recommends “social distancing” as a possible preventive measure. In a world where we now are so interconnected, how would that even be possible? Soderbergh is interested in making a point of our involuntary enmeshment with one another. You have a flu, you sneeze into your hand, and then you touch the subway rail. There’s a reason New Yorkers carry around Purell in their bags. After seeing Contagion, you will definitely think twice about reaching into a bowl of peanuts placed on the bar for all the patrons.

We are supposed to look on our fellow human beings with more kindness and tolerance now. How can that philosophy survive if “social distancing” becomes the norm? When the very act of touch is dangerous, you very well become like Mitch Imhoff, holed up in his house with his daughter and a stolen shotgun, not letting anyone come inside.

The storyline involving Jude Law is the least successful part of Contagion, a hiccup in the flow of relentless events. His egotistical assertion that “print media is dying” gets a laugh but seems out of place. Soderbergh has swiped at the Internet before, and here he uses Alan Krumweide’s panic-mongering as a message about the dangers of unfounded rumors and unofficial experts whipping their readers into a frenzy.

Krumweide’s blog is also a virus, you see. When it is passed on, it morphs, expands and explodes. Alan Krumweide is being followed by men in dark suits wearing ear-wires, giving the film a paranoid feel reminiscent of the great conspiracy movies of the 1970s, when institutions loomed as dark, omniscient forces, but it’s obvious that while Krumweide is onto something with the forsythia extract, and he was the first to make the connection between the man on the bus in Tokyo and the events unfurling in the United States, he’s meant to seem more like a crackpot than a purveyor of useful information. Perhaps that is the point, but it is a point Contagion makes clumsily and at painful length.

Still, due to the layered and woven structure of the film, it’s not a fatal flaw. Any time we come back to Kate Winslet’s doctor setting up the quarantine tents in a giant armory, and lecturing the local health officials on what they need to be looking for, or Jennifer Ehle’s serious lit-up face behind her mask as she works over steaming vats of chilling viral cells, or Fishburne’s impassioned desire to not only get the epidemic under control but also help and save his own people, Contagion knows what it is about.

The shots of the Dan Ryan Expressway looping around Chicago totally empty except for a convoy of army trucks is terrifying. Urban areas are not meant to be empty and quiet, and to see them as such brings a vast feeling of hopelessness at our own vulnerability.

While Contagion may bring comparisons to Outbreak, the film about the dreaded Ebola virus, it reminded me more than anything of 1950s noir thriller The Killer That Stalked New York, a scary and effective story about a blonde dame who brings smallpox into the United States after a jewel-smuggling trip to Cuba.

The blonde is Patient One, the originator of an epidemic that throws an entire city into a frenzy.

Department of Health officials struggle to contain the outbreak, fighting with other government officials who want to contain the flow of information.

Filmed in a documentary style, the movie makes New York City itself seem like a living entity, a breathing human animal, busy going about its everyday business, while a threat looms over it, turning individuals into statistics with a cruel random sweep of the hand.

Contagion has the same relentless, clear-eyed power. It says, “This is probably how it would go. This is probably what it would be like.”

Try to remain calm.