Steven Soderbergh begins CONTAGION with a black screen, the sound of a cough, and, when the picture comes up on screen, the caption Day 2 in appropriately lurid red letters. The cough belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the legion of stars that shuffle through this sprawling tale of social devolution, and in a nicely Hitchcockian twist, she is dead before the film hits the 10 minutes mark.
Not that shes forgotten. Au contraire. Its her character, a VP in a multi-national, who first brings the virus to the United States from business trip to Hong Kong. Her movements there are traced in flashback when, her first morning back, she has a seizure on the kitchen floor, her husband (Matt Damon) is calls an ambulance, and then tries to process that the doctors at the hospital are telling him that shes dead from causes they can’t explain. From there, with a pause for a a gruesomely clinical autopsy, the film broadens the scope of the unfolding story while keeping tabs on how many days have elapsed since the second one that starts the film.
Its not a precious conceit. The ticking clock told in days is a highly effective method for tracking how quickly the virus is spreading and contrasting that with the maddeningly slow pace of the World Health Organization in Switzerland, and the CDC in Atlanta, to even notice that the epidemic has started, and then try to play catch-up with it before it wipes out civilization. Soderberghs cold style is oddly suited to this kind of story, that of a virus impersonally killing a hefty percentage of all who come into contact with it. It doesnt, however, preclude the emotion of Damon and other civilians coping with the breakdown of life as they have known it, offered in contrast to the professional coolness of scientists trying to find out what they are dealing with. There is a wonderful nexus of this in the person of Dr. Ally Hextal (Jennifer Ehle), the first scientist to map the virus and to deconstruct its evolution. As the 3-D computer model spins, she fills in her boss (Laurence Fishburne) on all the gory details of how it attaches to the human host, how said host is unable to fight it, and how it made the unlikely but absolutely possible jump from bat to pig on its way to infecting humans. Ehle is all smooth efficiency, but there is the proper gleam in her eye of a scientist who has found something truly unique and remarkable, if deadly.
There is a similar gleam in the eye of a muck-raking blogger (Jude Law with a snaggletooth prosthetic that fails to make him any less lovely), who has a rabid following ready to believe him when he breaks the story of the new and deadly virus, and equally ready to believe him when he postulates conspiracy theories about a vaccine and promotes a homeopathic remedy that he swears has cured him.
The landscape of Soderberghs canvas encompasses sharp flashes of insight into humanitys best and worst reactions to an apocalypse, as the social and economic order collapses amid rumor, politics, bureaucracy, and paranoia. When Damon, the personification of the decent everyman, picks up a rifle to defend his family, its a signal moment of great power, the moreso for the anti-melodramatic way in which its depicted. There are emotional outbursts, but the most gripping moments are marked by the sotto voice in play. Kate Winslets epidemiologist, determined and no-nonsense, sizing up a gym and giving terse directions for setting it up with 250 beds does more than teach the audience about setting up a quarantine facility, its a tacit surrender to the virus, and a foreshadowing of what will come next.
The subplot that finds Marion Cotillard in Hong Kong, putative ground zero for the virus, is not without intrinsic interest, but is not well integrated into proceedings. It cries out to be either cut, or fleshed out.
In the first few moments of his film, Soderbergh establishes exactly how vulnerable we are to disease and carries that through to the very end. Each surface, each cough, each contact becomes potentially lethal. By the end, when Day 1 is played out, the effect of what is shown is far more powerful than it could have been at the beginning, giving the random confluence of events that leads to such devastation a truly horrific power. Soderbergh can be forgiven his little irony injected for maximum storytelling effect. He has fused fact and fiction in such a way that, despite its few excesses, makes CONTAGION impossible to shake off.