When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States in March 2019 and we all went into a lockdown, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion jumped to a top spot over various streaming platforms. I didn’t choose to watch it then–I opted for Netflix’s Tiger King (which, coincidentally, dropped its second season yesterday)–but I made a point to put it on my watchlist.
Now, I guess that in the name of transparency, I should say that I’ve technically seen this movie before. I say “technically” because it was in my DVD queue years ago and I watched the DVD, but I must have been very tired or something because I slept through the majority of it. But it was still on my Letterboxd watchlist and therefore on the Uncollecting list. When it appeared on HBO Max this past week, I started it up, watching it over the course of a few nights.
Soderbergh’s one of those directors that came out of the independent film revolution of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sex Lies and Videotape being his breakthrough. I think that the first of his films I saw was Out of Sight, which I watched with my roommates in college and enjoyed immensely. I’ve seen a number of his films over the years and while I don’t think I’m a devotee (I’ve missed more than I have watched), I can say that I admire the way he matches the style of a particular film to its content rather than creating a consistent “look” across all of his movies. He also seems to be one of those directors who actors enjoy working with, as seen by the number of big names in this cast, many of whom didn’t work for huge salaries.
Enough about the director, especially since for all I know, I’m wrong here in my observations. The film follows a global pandemic of a deadly, fast-acting virus from its first outbreaks in Japan, China, and the United States (specifically Minnesota, where Gwenyth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff is the first to die) through its various stages. Our characters are both people who are tracking and fighting the virus, such as Laurence Fishburne’s CDC director, who has to handle coordinating the response in the U.S.; and Kate Winslet and Marion Cotilliard, who play doctors tasked with contact tracing the Minnesota outbreak and searching for the virus’ origins.
You also have Matt Damon’s Mitch, Beth’s husband, who sees his six-year-old son die right after she does (a sign that you know that this movie is going to be serious–they don’t kill kids that often in movies) but does not die due to a natural immunity (a smart way to make it plausible that he would not only survive but be out in the world during the pandemic) who is trying to raise his teenage daughter while stuck in a quarantined society that is deteriorating around him. And then there’s Jude Law’s Alan Krumwiede, a popular blogger who trades in conspiracy theories and eventually snake oil.
Much like 2000’s Traffic, Soderbergh does not focus on a single character through the entire film, nor does he have the storylines build toward an “Everyone in One Place” conclusion. While the characters do intersect at points, their stories continue from there and he gives us an idea of the scope of all of this over the course of the six months or so that the film takes place, with a running time just under two hours.
A tense two hours, by the way, that is well-paced, incredibly well-acted, and scary as hell when you consider how much it matches up to the events of the last two years. The only thing it’s missing is a bloviating orange demagogue asshole who tries to suppress the efforts of the CDC because his cult doesn’t believe the virus is an actual threat.
Anyway, it’s not just the realism that makes this film great, and better than, say, 1995’s Outbreak, which was a good movie but more of a military thriller with body horror. It’s the very human characters, all of whom make mistakes and take risks which have both positive and negative consequences, all of which are related very well by their performers. Law plays the self-righteous blogger with so much smarm that you hate him throughout. Damon–who even with dad bod looks like he could be in an L.L. Bean catalogue–carries the “this guy is us” role extremely well. And all of the various doctors and officials at the CDC and WHO are characters you really care about and whose stories you become invested in.
Like I said, Contagion is currently streaming on HBO Max, and it makes the rounds through the various services every once in a while. I’ll obviously issue the warning that if you’ve been very traumatized over the last two years and don’t want to get triggered, you might not want to watch it, but otherwise, go watch it.
Watch or Skip?