Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”)
Written by: Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)
Once a year or so, a national news program will trot out one of those gross-out ratings-grabber stories about just how dirty and germ-filled your workplace is. The reporter will take cotton swabs and run them across objects officemates unconsciously touch like doorknobs, copy machines and keyboards. Back at the laboratory, the Petri dishes invariably explode into a horror show of nasty germs that make you shudder at the thought of opening a door and eating a sandwich without dousing your hands in gallons of sanitizer. Who wants to catch Scarlet fever from simply grabbing the handle on the break room fridge?
In “Contagion,” the new film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), the ickiness of passing germs around willy-nilly by touch turns deadly when a new virus emerges causing international pandemonium. Before anyone knows what’s going on, the virus has already gone global by way of carriers like the coughing man on the bus who grabs every pole and handrail before he comes to his stop, the sick kid leaving a snot smear on the door as he leaves school, and “patient zero” playing poker at the casino and passing infected chips around the table.
Here, “patient zero” is Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an American businesswoman who brings the virus to the U.S. from Hong Kong. Returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and her young son, Beth kicks off a chain reaction of infection in her hometown of Minneapolis (as well as Chicago, by way of a quickie extra-marital fling on the way home). The outbreak attracts the attention of the Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) as well as that of inflammatory blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Cheever dispatches Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to track down everyone exposed to the virus in the states while Krumwiede pokes and prods and generally cries “government/pharmaceutical conspiracy!” at every turn. The globe-trotting narrative works well in the character-heavy plot, which includes a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) sent to trace the origin of the virus and scientists (Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, Demetri Martin) charged with developing a vaccine. Mitch and his desire to protect his daughter as society crumbles around them stays at the center of the chilling story.
Soderbergh’s deft direction of a sprawling cast peppered with Oscar winners and nominees feels breezy and effortless, even when the story spirals into the darkness and questions what an event like this would bring to the real world. The only element that rings false is Law’s provocative celebrity blogger character, which is a clear attempt to modernize the old “intrepid reporter” archetype the rise of internet journalism has rendered obsolete. Fortunately, the rest of the film is rooted firmly enough in reality to make you thoroughly wash your hands afterward, and maybe turn your head in mild panic when someone coughs in a crowded room.