I always was hoping The Ringer podcast’s The Rewatchables would cover Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion. They did cover his less rewatchable Ocean’s Twelve after all last week. I did not think it would take a real life outbreak of a deadly virus in China similar to the one depicted in the film for it to materialize. For this episode, they ditch all the fun categories that make the show interesting. A benefit to Contagion is despite the serious world-ending stakes and the breakdown of society, it goes to show how people need to never stop working and give up on doing what they do best. Contagion also has plenty of dark humour to serve the dark times. I remember in the theatre there were plenty of dark laughs; from the International response to the virus; (“Canada just wants to wait and see”), blogger culture (“It’s Graffiti with punctuation”), and teenage social interactions (“We can’t get it if neither of us have it!”). In the dimmest of times people need humour to enliven themselves, and escape despair.
I saw the film in theaters on my birthday with my brother, also celebrating his recent birthday. I was so thrilled that a well-reviewed film was came out in September. He is a big Steven Soderbergh fan. I am more of a Steven Spielberg fan. Soderbergh, an art house breakout who launched his career on the back of a film festival and has flirted with mainstream movies a few times. The Ocean’s series, his crowning awards achievements Traffic (for which he won the Oscar) and Erin Brockovich made over $100 million dollars domestically $200 million worldwide. But Soderbergh is too prolific yet controlled to routinely dip into blockbuster territory. Often his own editor or writer. In Contagion’s case he was his own cinematographer. Contagion was a mass appealing film which opened to #1 and had plenty of big stars. An ensemble picture, Soderbergh’s methodical style and pace is perfectly suited to a film about an out of control virus which reaches peak chaos in the middle yet continues on ready for society to change and continue. It’s an incredibly well written story by Scott Z. Burns. Most films would focus on Matt Damon at the centre or Laurence Fishburne as a CDC head. Yet the movie routinely shares the spotlight with other valuable characters like Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow), a CDC inspector (Kate Winslet), a World Health Organization worker (Marion Cotillard, in the only plotline that doesn’t quite work), an old Lab Rat (Elliot Gould), a virologist (Jennifer Ehle), and a blogger (Jude Law). All of these characters are integral to capturing the scope and reaction of the virus.
I was going to write this post earlier but I had to eat. I often think in the film how Laurence Fishburne tells Kate Winslet to eat well and get some sleep. Important basic things we forget when chasing seemingly more important things. What shocked me most when I saw it, apart from the visualization of germs is how the panic of the virus is just as important as the virus itself when it comes spreading. In the previews Fisburne notes to Bryan Cranston’s General calling out of the National Guard: “People will panic, it will tip over!” In fact, the central tagline of the film is ‘Nothing spreads like fear.’
The most antagonistic part of the film, isn’t the virus itself, but the media represented here by Jude Law, a blogger who pretends to have a cure for the virus and preaches against the government. Such figures have only grown in standard since the advancent of Social Media and Fake News that are in the film and represent a threat yet are only at their infancy. It’s a worse problem for the same government combatting the coronavirus.
The legacy of this film stretches in many directions. AV Club writer and Twitter buddy of mine Jesse Hassenger wrote in his Together Again piece about the standout scene ‘in which Matt Damon’s character fails to comprehend what has happened, is a plainspoken heartbreaker. The way Damon plays his grief in that brief scene—stunned, helpless—is indicative of the movie’s general approach to his character.’ He goes on to add how it captures Damon (once again cut off from society and seemingly untouchable) at an inflection point in his career from non-Bourne supporting player to maintaining leading man status without any heroics: ‘The nuance of a character actor with the responsibilities of a lead’. Go read it, it’s good.
The film, as most good movies has only grown in reputation. As the New York Times reported according to studio Warner Bros. “According to Warner Bros., the film was listed as No. 270 among its catalog titles at the end of December. Since the start of 2020, it has jumped to second, bested only by Harry Potter movies. “Contagion” is also trending on Amazon Prime Video and has flirted with the iTunes top 10.” People are turning to the film for advice and answers, as they often do for movies. This is both artfully poetic, and kind of stupid in an understandable societal way. As the Times goes onto report that the film’s screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has received a lot of calls from media to comment based on the outbreak of coronavirus: “I’m alarmed when people choose to ask a screenwriter for advice, rather than a doctor.” And the director himself has properly stayed out of it ““I will decline under the guise of social distancing.”
People could be turning to the film based on lack of government response, or because film seems more accessible and at times seems more sophisticated. It’s one of the first films where I noticed things like cinematography and the effect the score had. The way composer Cliff Martinez seems to capture the life of the virus as it infects the world, and Soderbergh’s controlled look at it shown by a striking image of the ravaged San Francisco hills is a highlight.
This very well might be Stephen Soderbergh’s best film. he’s a practiced professional filmmaker who has made art house films, experimental films, even pop entertainment. Yet all of his films have a solid head on them and feel purposeful. Contagion might have the best marriage of artfulness and mass entertaining appeal. The performances are good across the board and understated. There is a flaw in Marion Cotillards storyline going nowhere but that’s sort of the point. Which still adds to the themes. It is well paced, informative, and for once positively pro-government in a way that is not propogandist. It’s also timely as hell.
- Important Takeaways
- Wash your hands or you are going to die. [P.S. If your local store is Sold Out of Hand Sanitizer, try also using this handy thing called SOAP & WATER you degenerate.]
- Fear of danger, hysteria, and false information can be more damaging than the danger itself. Get good reliable information from reliable trusted people. Not bloggers or televangelists.