One of the things I find most entertaining about Steven Soderbergh’s directorial career is the way so many of his films seem like they had their genesis as some sort of bar bet. “Bet you can’t make a big, glossy, star-studded caper film.” Boom, Ocean’s Eleven; Soderbergh wins. “Bet you can’t get an excellent performance out of a porn actress in a complicated drama about love and sex.” Bang, The Girlfriend Experience; Soderbergh wins. “Bet you can’t make a World War II drama exclusively using technology from the era the film is set in.” Blam, The Good German; Soderbergh wins (although the audience loses pretty decisively on that last one). His latest film fits right in. Contagion feels like someone got their hands on a U.S. government manual describing the protocols and expected outcomes if a major pandemic hit the entire world. The person slid it across the bar to Soderbergh and said, “So maybe you were able to do all that other stuff, but let’s see you adapt this into a drama.”
And Soderbergh wins again, although a relatively generous definition of drama is required. Contagion is heavy on the plain mechanics of how a illness-driven catastrophe would impact the planet–almost exclusively through examining the repercussions felt in the United States, although one key subplot takes place in China–without much thought put into the way people would really feel about it. Soderbergh seems to rely on the automatic transference most audience members will engage in, that deeply intimidating question “What would I do in that situation?” The characters may not be mute witnesses as they watch society break down around them, but they’re still surprisingly quiet given what they’re witnessing. As meticulous as Soderbergh is in his depiction of the tumbling dominoes of the devastating disease, the film has an almost inevitable quality of incompleteness. Because Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are invested in showing the myriad of ways in which fear and panic will drive humanity to tear itself apart, every twist introduces more questions than the film could possibly answer. Often, Soderbergh gets by with nuance and implication, but there are times when the gaps in information lead to strained credibility. For a culture pushing close to post-apocalyptic wasteland territory, they sure do a nice job keeping electricity flowing and the Internet churning along seemingly unabated.
With characters that are generally thin, the film inadvertently invites telling comparative analysis about which actors can do the most with the least. Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Marion Cotillard are all fine, though they certainly exhibit more workmanlike skills, largely rattling off exposition or sternly announcing the state of their sorrow. As a conspiracy-minded blogger, Jude Law opts for instilling a shade too much weasely color into his performance. In a very small role–she has barely a moment onscreen in which she’s not reeling from the illness–Gwyneth Paltrow effectively hints at a complicated life beyond the hard details of the plot, and Kate Winslet fares even better as a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who’s dispatched to frigid Minnesota to investigate the outbreak. She keys in on the character’s overwhelming sense of duty and pangs of impatience for those who make her work more difficult, building one of the most complete people within the rigorous confines of the rapidly shifting story. But the finest work is delivered by Jennifer Ehle as a scientist working to develop a vaccine. She gives just a hint of a placid oddness to the character and spins the characterization from there, knowing full well that she needs to fill out the small role with quiet reaction shots, something she does with great care.
There were many times during Contagion when I was deeply grateful that Soderbergh was the person directing this material, completely certain that most other filmmakers wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to pump it full of cheap melodrama and floridly aggressive pushiness. Soderbergh instead brings a journalist’s seriousness to the film as he tracks through the many tendrils of reaction to the crisis. Even given that appreciation, I’ll admit there were a couple of moments when I though the film could have benefits from the energetic jolt that might come from someone who’d embrace the inherent trashiness of the premise, the ease with which it could shift from procedural exercise to chilling horror story. Overall, though, I far prefer someone who wants to examine how predatory hedge fund managers would try to profit from the wave of human misery to a filmmaker who wants to goose to audience or set them reeling from a preponderance of gooey muck. If Contagion is occasionally a little too formal, it surely bests the likely alternative.