Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Things are feeling a bit tense and anxious these days. Coronavirus or COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle and for a good reason. It is an extremely contagious disease that is spreading at a rapid rate. The most vulnerable to its worst effects are the elderly and people who already have severe health conditions. However, it is vitally important that even people outside of those categories practice smart hygiene to prevent the spread even further. There is a slight pressure on the American population to self-quarantine if possible and enact “social distancing,” keeping away from large gatherings of people. With no vaccine on the market, these are scary times, waiting to see if we can respond before it gets out of control. People have died, and more will die before humanity manages to fight back COVID-19. In 2011, Steven Soderbergh directed a film that imagines such a virus getting loose and wreaking havoc.
We begin with Day 2, Beth (Gwenyth Paltrow) is returning to her home in the American Midwest after being abroad in Hong Kong and Macau for business. She’s got the start of respiratory illness but assumes it’s just a travel bug. In forty-eight hours she’s dead, and her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is left reeling. Within a week, the illness is spreading rampantly through the United States, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. This is only the start. CDC director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) scrambles to deal with the pandemic and sends an Intelligence officer (Kate Winslet) into the heart of the U.S. outbreak epicenter. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization dispatches epidemiologist Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to Macau to uncover the roots of the virus.
Contagion is not a film that follows the traditional Hollywood structure. There is no main character, and big-name actors play roles that are killed off in the middle of the picture. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns wanted to make the film as realistic and not indulge in melodrama. Burns met with Larry Brilliant, one of the epidemiologists who helped eradicate smallpox to develop an accurate picture of what a real-life pandemic would look like. Through Brilliant, Burns met other health officials connected to the CDC and WHO, which helped him get a handle on the many people involved in monitoring global health. It was during this writing process that our planet experience the H1N1 flu or swine flu pandemic, which Burns credits with significantly adding to research.
Contagion exists an almost documentary-like horror film, particularly with its chilling rewind to Day 1 in the movie’s final scene. That moment is like punctuation on the preceding story, showing how human consumption habits are directly linked to our potential extinction. Soderbergh didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of humanity amid this crisis, but he never overplays his hand. Looting occurs, but the criminals are very direct about searching for the things they see as valuable (guns, food, etc.). Internet journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a disturbingly real character, a man who uses his vast platform to spread misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories that lead to people dying. Alan claims he cured himself of the illness through homeopathic methods leading to violent runs on the cures he pushes.
Screenwriter Burns accomplishes a near-impossible feat by somehow injecting very personal and emotional moments into a script that could be lost in the procedure. Mitch’s fallout from his family’s collapse in the wake of the disease feels very real. The moment the doctor tells him his wife, who he saw minutes earlier, is dead was particularly chilling. Not missing a beat, Mitch acknowledges what the doctor said and then asks if he can talk to her. That inability to process your recently alive partner’s passing comes across as the reaction any of us would have. You have become so used to that person being in your life, likely the most significant portion of your life, that psychologically you cannot fathom them being gone so quickly.
Contagion isn’t my favorite Soderbergh film, but it is impressive for the type of film being presented. Watching this movie during the current coronavirus crisis isn’t going to put you at ease necessarily. They do develop a vaccine and process by which that happens is really interesting. Soderbergh has an immaculate talent for making films that operate outside of our expectations and play with topics in ways we didn’t realize could be so fascinating. If you want to understand how our current system responds when they become aware of a viral outbreak, then Contagion manages to be informative while existing as compelling human drama.