Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Demitri Martin, Elliot Gould, John Hawkes
Spoilers everywhere. Watch first, read later.
I’ve often wondered what a film would be like if it were entirely populated with top actors. Contagion has a good stab at answering that question. Anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad will know what a truly great actor Bryan Cranston can be. Here, he’s pretty much an extra, playing an unremarkable army bureaucrat in three brief scenes. How opulent this film is to cast an actor of such talent in a role so inconsequential. Same with Elliot Gould, same with Marion Cotillard. Kate Winslet has a leading role but only for half the film, taking early retirement to a mass grave.
A good question would be “why?” Why fill your movie with famous, and therefore expensive actors, especially in roles that don’t really matter? Of course, there are obvious business answers to this. Steven Soderbergh is a director who can handle both big budget Hollywood (the Ocean’s series, Traffic, Erin Brockovich), as well as indie/experimental features like Ché and The Girlfriend Experience, and often mixes these sensibilities to great effect; so who wouldn’t want to work with him? Also, big names help sell the movie and are an investment. And for the actors, working in a big budget all-star production connects them with other successful players thus elevating, or at the very least, maintaining their status. But the most interesting reason lies in what kind of film Contagion is and what its relationship is to the viewer.
Contagion depicts a global pandemic. It’s a disaster/apocalypse film. As such, there are bunch of different characters in all sorts of places all over the world. Despite their cosmetic differences -ethnicity, language, culture –they all retain ‘everyman’ qualities. The characters are broadly drawn, ciphers, foils to our common human fears, hopes and concerns. And their lack of complexity isn’t a problem because we’re bombarded with so many of the prosaic folks that we don’t have time to notice. So perhaps, just maybe, the decision to employ all these brilliant actors in roles that don’t come close to testing their abilities has something to do with their familiarity to the audience. For the global pandemic to be meaningful, we’ve got to not want it to happen and for that we’ve got to care about the people in peril. But if we’re bouncing across the planet and only spending a few moments with each character, it’s tricky to care, no matter how much you highlight their universal humanity.
So did I care more because all these big and little roles were filled with actors that I know and like? Not really. I will say this, it was a fun distraction. On a metatextual level, there was a giddy uncertainty as to what fate would befall these characters simply because we meet them in roles that show a rare disregard for an actor’s perceived value and status. What other film would snuff out Winslet at the half way mark? Other than that, humanity could have died out and it would’ve been fine by me.
Luckily for Contagion, the main character is actually the disease and as it turns out they’re pretty interesting. As the film plays out the global pandemic from beginning to end, there are all sorts of issues that are raised, from little background mentions like that of law enforcement absenteeism being at 25% while looters raid peoples homes, to debates over what is more dangerous: the disease or the fear of it. Pedestrian as the characters may well be, the nitty gritty of the disease and its effects are enough to keep us entertained as we enjoy the vicarious thrills of a worldwide catastrophe.
Having said that, for a genre that thrives on spectacle, Contagion is notably low-key in that respect. Yes, there are mass graves, sudden deaths, stampedes, but such events are in the minority. This film is about the process of the disease. It aims to give a realistic picture of what would happen if such a disease were in our world. I think it succeeds in this but along the way there are a few missteps.
Other than the disease, the only other villain is Jude Law’s character, Alan Krumwiede, an Australian (when Jude can be bothered to maintain the accent) who claims to be a freelance journalist but is really just a blogger, albeit one with a big following. Alan fakes contracting the MEV-1 virus and claims to his readers that he’s been cured with Forsythia, a homeopathic product that Alan has a financial interest in and subsequently makes $4 million. Strangely, Alan is the only character that brings the internet into the story and as he’s a venal scumbag and his readers are contrary conspiracy theorists. By association, the internet is dismissed as an irrelevant, negative side show. This is incredible. At one point “social distancing” is advised. That is, no shaking hands, physical contact, etc. In such a world where physical contact could be fatal, wouldn’t the internet become an even more important part of people’s lives? Contagion has made itself look old-fashioned by not thinking about what role the internet would play. And when you consider how careful and accurately the film uses epidemiology, it’s all the more disappointing.
Contagion’s other boo-boo is its obstinate desire to remain apolitical. Again, this weakens the verisimilitude by ignoring the fact that governments would be an incredibly important factor in how things went down. As Contagion tells it, the US Government-run CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), with a little help from the business world, manage to tame the disease, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) more or less do ok helping people. But this is all based on the massive assumption that governments are basically trustworthy and capable in times of extreme crisis. Perhaps, it was best that they didn’t get bogged down in politics, admittedly it could have been very boring, but Contagion’s lack of scrutiny towards its authority figures, the vilification of its sole dissident, and the dismissal of populist medium The Internet, leaves a sinister aftertaste.
Nonetheless, Contagion is a good film. The techno-political follies are only noticeable because the rest of the film is so well conceived. It lacks an emotional kick but works well as a brain tickler. I’m glad I’ve seen it. I think others should see it. I’m going to bed.