Soderbergh and Contagion – Florals and fawning.
<MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS>
We had a date-night tonight. So I chose a movie about a deadly out-of-control virus which kills humans by making them writhe convulsively foaming at the mouth and makes their skin turn a mottled hue as they breathe their last.
I’m really romantic.
And we both thoroughly enjoyed it. Me more than the missus because I got home and immediately decided to let my burgeoning feelings flow all over a post.
If too many cooks spoil the broth, Steven Soderbergh is Gordon Ramsay keeping all their talented butts in check. He’s adept at handling ensembles. If you’ve experienced the smooth sophistication of Ocean’s 11, 13 (12 was marred by a ghastly plot) or the arty, non-linear Full Frontal you’ll know what I mean. It’s as if he compels stars to leave their reputations at the door before they sign up for his movies.
He achieves the same with Contagion, not just through his ability to extract convincing performances from a cast that includes Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Matt Damon, but also through his brutal treatment of their characters. If you watch movies by other mainstream directors (like a certain Michael Bay, for instance), the hair and makeup for big stars remain impeccable throughout his staple offerings – action movies. Not Soderbergh. From a convulsing, wan Paltrow to Kate Winslet looking cold and unlamented in a body bag, he uses them as props to further the real star of the movie, the story.
It’s a pounding thriller that examines two aspects of our ability to handle disasters: systems and human nature. The movie chronicles the race against a virus that threatens to wipe out 1 in every 7 humans on the planet if left unchecked. Response times are hampered by a distributed and bureaucratic setup, a fear-mongering online personality (Jude Law) and the ensuing panic and mayhem.
He tackles other issues like homeopathic remedies (let’s just say he’s not a fan), the power of online word-of-mouth and the ability of a credible few to influence millions, even if their message is poisonous. There are a lot of technical discussions which only add to the suspense and not the puzzlement of the viewer. When they discuss R-nought rates, you want them to continue explaining it further because the details pull you inexorably into the storyline and its sense of urgency.
Soderbergh seamlessly runs a thread of human nature into this complicated tapestry of doomsday scenarios and bio-technicalese. In the 80/20 of human emotions, he brings out the “80” through the predictable, selfish response to save self, then loved ones and if time and resources permit, friends. There are situations reminiscent of the recent London riots with vivid images of arson and looting, although the motive in this case is to hoard food, obtain vaccines and survive, rather than use discontent and social inequity as an excuse for thuggery.
For me, the remaining “20” is the core of the movie. It is those critical moments when characters look beyond themselves and see a higher cause (even if it can only be articulated as the rather cheesy “saving humanity”). And Soderbergh never allows the selflessness of these characters to appear trite or cliched. He makes it clear that the work of CDC/WHO employees is as dangerous as troops warring on a battlefield. Especially because the enemy is unknown, the strategy is unknown, the weapons are unknown and yet these brave few venture into uncharted territory coming into contact with infected victims in an attempt to identify root cause.
Also wondrous is his ability to meld feelings into this mix. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie when Damon’s character browses through the last few pictures of his wife on her camera before she fell victim to the virus. And suddenly the urgency of the timeline evaporates as he allows the first real feeling of loss to wash over him as he holds his head in his hands and cries. It’s touching and masterful.
The story narration is much closer to “Traffic”, a visceral look at drug-trafficking in the US and Mexico. I’ll call Soderbergh the Frederick Forsyth of movies in his attention to detail and crisp execution. Even when his stories are non-linear he manages to pull you along either with a sense of urgency or by dropping tantalizing hints that offer clues to the connect.
Contagion begins with a title card that says “Day 2.” That mystery is solved only as the movie ends. But don’t worry, it’s a delicious and disturbing wait in that seeming anachronism. Go watch it.