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Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh's paranoid thriller

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Although SARS and swine flu came and went, and the bird flu never arrived, the fear of a new pandemic from an unknown virus is an anxiety that won't go away. The media and medical science have cried wolf whenever they've spotted a shadow, but chances are one day the shadow could have substance. If the Spanish flu of 1918 killed 1% of the world's population back when few people traveled, imagine what could happen in an era when no major city is more than two days' travel from any other.

That anxiety is at the root of Contagion, a film that imagines a rapidly morphing flu-like virus, MEV-1, for which there is no treatment, no vaccine and no hope for those who catch it. Some are immune and others are vulnerable. For reasons that become clear in the final scene, director Steven Soderbergh begins his story on Day Two, according to the caption, with Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) chatting on her cell phone at an airport in between flights from Hong Kong to Chicago. Contagion moves efficiently from Day Two onward, cutting from person to person, scene to scene, continent to continent, as Beth and other widely dispersed (and mostly nameless) people develop the sweats and a choking cough, and then die. One of the film's best scenes involves Beth's husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), at the hospital. After the doctor tells him she is dead, he insists: "Can't I just talk to her?" Shock gives way to anger and then to the determined resolution to survive.

The scenario by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant) is a little crowded for a two-hour film. Two of the most interesting characters, a curmudgeonly pathologist (Elliott Gould) and a Centers for Disease Control researcher (Kate Winslet), swiftly disappear amid the plethora of roles and onrushing events, and hopscotch between places. Steely Laurence Fishburne is the steady through line as the CDC director trying to manage political pressure and public expectations along with the science of combating an unknown plague that has begun to claim millions of lives. In and out of the plot after he loses his wife and toddler son, Mitch struggles to keep himself and his teenage daughter alive. The scene-stealer, Jude Law, plays a self-important blogger-twit, the sort of endlessly nattering zealot who believes 9/11 never happened and Apollo 11 was staged on a Hollywood set. He convinces himself (and millions of dedicated readers) that MEV-1 is a plot by the pharmaceutical industry. Although a true believer in his own psychobabble, he isn't above making millions pushing his own homeopathic remedy.

The widely scattered story lacks dramatic consistency and is interesting mostly for its speculation on what might happen if a pandemic claimed millions of victims within a few weeks' time. In Contagion, widespread panic triggers looting and rioting. Food and medicine become scarce. 911 calls are unanswered and the president withdraws to an undisclosed location. The question is raised but never entirely resolved about the public health response: Trials for a new vaccine, once the mutant virus is understood, might take months, followed by more months for manufacturing and distribution. Contagion proposes a lottery system, but by that point, wouldn't most of the world's survivors already be immune?

Contagion's story might have been better told as a mini-series, allowing more time for character development and plot resolution. Of local interest is the failed attempt by Mitch and his daughter to escape Chicago for Wisconsin. National Guard troops have sealed the border and turn away every comer on orders from the unnamed governor.n