Burns’ script demands the viewer follow along without many intellectual or dramatic shortcuts. Mitch is revealed to be immune to MEV-1, but where this might make him the key to a cure in a dumber film, it’s dismissed as impractical to do anything with his specific antibodies. There are some jargon and whiteboard scenes, but they exist to educate the skeptical equivalents of the mayor from Jaws, characters we know exist every time precautionary measures are recommended. The ill-informed viewer might be taken in by Krumwiede, as he’s given plenty of muckraking opportunities and sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, but Burns has clearly done his homework about these types of charlatans and includes tips for the clued-in to quickly determine what his game is. Most crucially, the film doesn’t pretend that pandemics need some kind of human root cause, like a bioweapon lab or a shady corporation. Several characters believe they’re living in a movie based on the frequency of references to this or that nefarious actor when there’s a very simple and intuitive answer to all their inquiries. Burns, one of my favorite screenwriters for docudramas like this one, understands that it’s the dealing with pandemics that is complicated; the emergence of them is not.
Burns’ meticulousness extends to every corner of the film, no matter how small the role. Characters that must exist for the sake of accuracy arise fully-formed and recognizable and then leave, having contributed their part. Elliot Gould plays a university scientist who could justify his own movie, a man who disobeys the CDC’s orders to consolidate virus research and makes a key discovery on his own. Within this microdrama, both parties take defensible positions and thrill the viewer with their brief back-and-forth, engendering that specific feeling of being in the room for an important conversation. Krumwiede’s interactions with his local newspaper speak to the broad arc of print journalism and the collapse of science reporting. The whole film takes place in the wake of the supposed overreaction to the H1N1 swine flu, another dramatic, high-stakes scenario that had to weigh the difference between doing too much or not enough in a rapidly-changing environment. All this speaks to a film that flirts with an impossible level of density, one that short-changes plotlines for the sake of the whole, but Contagion manages to make itself so rich with relevance and contemporary meaning that it evades the problem.
Contagion’s a film of ideas as much as it’s a film of characters, but it’s not like the characters are lacking. Soderbergh’s penchant for attracting all-star casts to his projects is on full display. If the characters have to make the most with limited screentime, then why not get heavy-hitting actors to maximize their potential? Law’s charismatic stridency makes the character no less repellant, but his ability to dupe the masses is easily bought. Winslet’s Dr. Mears is a dogged pursuer of danger, as ballsy as any 80’s action star, and the moments where she drops her mask of impassive competency are some of the film’s most affecting. Ehle’s Hextall, a scientist’s scientist, hypnotizes with the way she stares at test monkeys, Cotillard manifests the root empathy that allows her to see the individuals in the numbers and thus makes her a great doctor, Fishburne is a reliably stalwart leader at the head of one of the US government’s crown jewels, and Paltrow does some fantastic physical acting in the throes of MEV-1. Damon’s Mitch is tasked with playing the everyman who experiences the pandemic as a single citizen, and while Winslet used to be my favorite actor in the ensemble, a rewatch put him in the lead. He plays the most vital and grounding role in the ensemble, and he provides furious incredulity followed by fear and grief over the course of the film’s long timeline.
With Soderbergh as director and cinematographer, his signature chilliness is well-suited to a film obsessed with investigation and process. The aforementioned trademark of the film is the lingering on surfaces that, stripped of context, are merely used glasses or bus poles. Soderbergh gives them the same visual dread that rusty farm implements swinging in a shed would have in a horror movie. As MEV-1 ravages the world and the spread of the disease is given over to the containment, Soderbergh swaps out lingered surfaces for montages of abandoned city-scapes, of garbage piling up and deserted airport concourses. Fishburne’s CDC director eating alone in a cafeteria is made to look like a painful tragedy, like something so lonely and contrary to man’s social nature is also what’s going to save his life. Cliff Martinez’ score backs everything up with his alien beats, another necessary propulsion in a film that could, but doesn’t, feel like a lecture.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police, The Help was the most-watched movie on Netflix, a comically perfect result for a nation that remains clueless about so many things. Contagion’s renewed popularity during COVID-19 speaks to better instincts. What are the VIP’s talking about, what are the steps that could be taken, what can we expect? As they were prescient about the emergence and spread of a pandemic, Soderbergh and Burns may very well be prescient as well about the pandemic’s end, wherein a vaccine is produced and things slowly return to normal. However, Contagion’s rise in the iTunes rankings may very well speak to a level of comfort viewing. A film that contains millions of implied deaths may be too optimistic. What good is Dr. Hexhall’s hard work if too much of the population refuses to take the vaccine? What of the roll-on effects of months-long quarantines, especially as eviction moratoriums are set to expire at the writing of this review? Burns and Soderbergh take for granted that global society can manage their way through a far more deadly pandemic than the one we’re currently grappling with. It doesn’t make their masterful film worse by any means, just sadder. A