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Nordling Coughs Up His CONTAGION Review!

Nordling here.

Steven Soderbergh's CONTAGION is efficient.  From the first cough to the final shot, the film has a clarity of vision and a purpose that is unrivaled in most big-budget films.  It doesn't meander, it turns corners, and director Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns have made a film that is extraordinarily direct and focused for the scale that it operates under.  Further, CONTAGION happily plays for the smart crowd.  It's not interested in simplifying what it has to say, but the film's language makes it easy to follow if you pay close attention, and it rewards audiences who do that.  As I said, efficient.

CONTAGION follows a global pandemic from the first "index patient" through to the end, and it wastes very little time in doing so.  There's no fat on this film at all, and even the characterization serves to forward the story.  Without going heavily into spoilers, I'll say that CONTAGION isn't interested in THE STAND-like apocalyptic imagery (although the shots of empty streets and airports are chilling) but it is interested in how the world would change in such an event.  It treats the pandemic as a virtual certainty - it's happened before, many times over in history, and CONTAGION seems to suggest that it will certainly happen again.  CONTAGION wisely sticks close to the people, and through those various characters we see this new, changed world.

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) has returned from Hong Kong, with a layover in Chicago, and she's not feeling well.  Coughing and achy, she dismisses it as jet lag, makes her way home to her husband mitch (Matt Damon) and in a matter of a couple of days, she collapses on the kitchen floor.  When she's taken to the hospital, in a matter of hours, she's dead.  And by then it's too late - with a high communicability rate, it isn't long before the new virus goes beyond anything seen before, and Dr. Ellis Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne) sends his ace investigator Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to try and track the source of the disease.  Meanwhile Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), a blogger out of San Francisco and a conspiracy theorist, thinks he know how the disease began and that the CDC is hiding information about it from the general public.  And Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) must try to understand what happened in Hong Kong that started the pandemic, but she quickly gets more than she bargained for in dealing with the locals.  As civilization slowly breaks down, various people and government agencies try to hold it together and come up with a vaccine.

Like Soderbergh's TRAFFIC, the narrative weaves through these characters, and we follow their insights as well as their foibles.  None of them is perfect - Dr. Cheever isn't above warning his family against all rules of protocol, even as he tries to be the calming figure in front of the approaching storm.  Alan has no issues making a little money on the side although he knows that the information he's giving out could potentially be wrong.  And Matt Damon's Mitch, very much the audience surrogate through the film, must deal with the devastation of his family, all the while nursing the wound that his wife most likely cheated on him in Chicago, and that her cheating may have been the match that started the brushfire.  It's a low-key performance, not showy, and proves that Damon is one of the most interesting, and best, actors working today.  He's going to win an Oscar someday; it seems inevitable, and yet perfromances like this remind us that he's also not interested in the grandstanding performance.  He's after something else - truth.

I've never been a germophobe, but anyone who flinches after a sneeze will probably pull their hair out over this movie.  The film lingers on certain shots - a bus pole, a tabletop, anyplace that a person has touched, and you can just imagine the creepy-crawlies just waiting there to pounce.  Soderbergh plays those moments for what they are worth, but he's not interested in the significance of the illness so much as the significance of the barriers it represents.  Where even a handshake or an embrace can kill, and we must deliberately distance ourselves from our fellow human beings, how do we retain our semblance of civilization?  Are we doomed to be alone in a world that needs us to come together more than ever?  That theme resonates throughout the entire film, and becomes the central thesis of CONTAGION.

It's hard to write a review without spoiling on this one, because it's what happens in the latter half of the film that's so interesting, and what makes CONTAGION one of Soderbergh's best films yet.  Soderbergh and Burns aren't interested in all the familiar tropes - they have something to say, and there is a message throughout the film that people, no matter what happens, will always be people, and I found CONTAGION a very optimistic film in that regard.  I think the film presumes that the natural tendency of a person when he sees his fellow human fall is to offer the helping hand back up, even though we can behave irrationally as well.  There is hope in CONTAGION, and I found the message comforting, especially in this day and age, where it's very difficult to stay optimistic with the world.  

CONTAGION suggests that through the worst of times, we can be at our best, and although people may die, and behave badly, we all have an inner need to help each other out.  We've seen the disease film before, but what CONTAGION does is different in that it has utter faith in people.  I've always found Steven Soderbergh to be a very pragmatic kind of filmmaker, but he doesn't over-sentimentalize or make grandiose these moments of humanity.  It's as simple as a handshake, or a dance shared by a couple of teenagers, or a husband learning how to grieve over his lost wife.  It's the little things that make us who we are, and even in a sweeping film like CONTAGION, Soderbergh reminds us that the little things matter.  It's a very frightening film, if you want it to be.  But I found CONTAGION exhilarating, and even joyous in its way. If a global pandemic is as inevitable as the film claims, the film's idea that the one constant is humankind's need to help each other out makes me feel better about us as a whole.  I love it when movies do that.

Nordling, out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:42 p.m. CST

    Seventeenth!

    by cobrakinte

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:46 p.m. CST

    Cool review.

    by Parallax

    I'd have been "first" but I actually read the article. Anyway, thanks Nordling.... I'll have to check this one out.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:47 p.m. CST

    Ok, so the best Steven S. Film?!?!?!?!?

    by MainMan2001

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:47 p.m. CST

    OUTBREAK, I AM LEGEND, 28 DAYS LATER, etc. etc.

    by Sir Loin

    People get sick. Big, impressive shots of empty cities and people in panic. Yawn. Find an original take on the apocalypse, Hollywood. Natural disasters, aliens, and virii have all been done to death, so to speak.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:48 p.m. CST

    I think...

    by MainMan2001

    Schizopolis, Out of Sight, Oceans Films, Traffic, & Solaris. All amazing.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:50 p.m. CST

    and let's not forget the conspiracy theorist character

    by Sir Loin

    Russell in ID4, Charlie in 2012...there's always someone who somehow knows what's going on. I expect better from Soderbergh than this standard template.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 10:52 p.m. CST

    Shit

    by smatt584

    Haven't see the movie. Want to know if it's good. First words of the review are "spoiler alert". Whats the point if an early review if it spoils the movie? It's like a review made to not be read.

  • ... you should definitely go see it. But only if you like being proved wrong. Then, be prepared to come back here and apologise to Contagion for wrongly judging it, sight unseen.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 11:08 p.m. CST

    If you've seen the trailer, why bother to pay for it..

    by darthliquidator

    ....the trailer is a textbook example of everything that's wrong with trailers and why they're actually killing the box-office potential of the films they're ...uh..feverishly trying to promote....the trailer pretty much includes the ENTIRE Paltrow contribution, including her death....I've completely had it with these show-everything-tell-everything trailers....they just kissed another $11.00 ticket price goodbye...I'll be happy to wait until it wanders onto Netflix streaming..or basic cable.

  • Hahahahahhhaaaa!! Um....no. After Green Zone he deserves to have his career ended. America hating mother fucker Robert Redford whanna be. He's fucking toast. Americans don't forget. And we don't forgive treason.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 11:36 p.m. CST

    How you like them apples?

    by 2soon2eat

    Yeah, no Oscar for you, Damon. How does that taste?

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 11:54 p.m. CST

    Damon's already won an Oscar

    by bierce

    Just not for acting.

  • Sept. 8, 2011, 11:59 p.m. CST

    That poster looks like it's been stuck up Soderbergh's ass

    by BoRock_A_Boomer

    It's so arty

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 12:09 a.m. CST

    @2soon2eat

    by Happyfat73

    God, I hope you're being sarcastic.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 12:12 a.m. CST

    Give Soderbergh the Oscar for Killing off Paltrow right away!!!

    by loki965

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 1 a.m. CST

    sir loin

    by shodan6672

    Do you realize how silly your posts looks considering the fact that you haven't seen the film? Soderbergh isn't exactly a hack.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 1:38 a.m. CST

    Good job Nordling in coughin up how the movie ENDS.

    by Ditko

    Now I guess I´ll wait for the rental.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 1:43 a.m. CST

    The virus spreads worldwide...

    by dukeroberts

    and then the Apes take over! Can't wait to see it. Going Saturday night.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:31 a.m. CST

    2soon2eat...

    by goatboy500

    Can't tell if you're trolling or not, but even so......... I'm not American (I'm a Scotsman one of the many countries in the world who's inhabitants helped BUILD your country) and I seem to know your bill of amendments better than you do. It is WRITTEN INTO YOUR AMENDMENTS that every American citizen has the right to question the government. The fact that your government and it's mass media machine will throw the word 'Un-American' around to demonise anyone who exercises their right to do so isn't your fault. But what is your fault is the fact that you're an idiot. It is not treason to question whether or not your government lied in order to invade and occupy another country, (which they did, by the way - this has been pretty much well established at this point) it is treason to betray your country to an enemy country in time of war or truce. look it up. Yeah America never forgets. Tell that shit to the Native Americans, idiot. I'm pretty sure they're still raw over being invaded, occupied and massacred... but hey, you gave them casinos so it's all good.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 6:45 a.m. CST

    But they have those nice reservations

    by kanye west

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 6:46 a.m. CST

    The virus only effects cheating spouses!

    by Spandau Belly

    So never get married and you're fine!

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 7:29 a.m. CST

    I liked it better as "OUTBREAK!"

    by ZodNotGod

    No I didn't!

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 8:39 a.m. CST

    re: "Americans don't forget. And we don't forgive treason."

    by buggerbugger

    Oh, the fucking irony. On both counts.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 8:40 a.m. CST

    darthliquidator: Don't Watch the Trailer for the Double

    by kevinwillis.net

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but from the look of the trailer, it's less a trailer and more a movie cliff notes. If there is some additional reveal left in the movie not covered in the trailer, it's a very busy movie. I mean, really. I agree. I don't mind spoilers, personally, and will read reviews with spoilers and not care when major beats are given away, but the spoiler level in trailers today is outrageous. Today, the trailer for The Sixth Sense would include the fact that Bruce Willis was dead all along in the trailer.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 8:42 a.m. CST

    BTW, Contagion is Propaganda

    by kevinwillis.net

    For vaccine hawking Big Pharma companies. The goal is to scare people about Bird-weaponized bird-flu before the next batch of h1n1 or n1n5 vaccine comes out. Some of which, in the past, has actually shipped with live virus that ends up giving you the bird flu. Yay, quality control!

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 10:37 a.m. CST

    Matt Damon

    by TimM

    A cardboard cutout of Matt Damon has a wider dynamic range than Matt Damon. Heck even David Duchovny has a wider dynamic range than Matt Damon.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 10:59 a.m. CST

    Any Movie that kills Gwyneth Paltrow has some redeming qualities.

    by Franky_Four_Fingers

    So tired of that pretentious twat.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 11:13 a.m. CST

    @sir loin: STFU

    by Playkins

    Seriously, just fucking shut it. By all accounts this is a great film. Shutting it down because there are some films with a similar story or theme is YOUR loss.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 12:41 p.m. CST

    Glad to see Bryan Cranston parlaying his success in Breaking Bad

    by openthepodbaydoorshal

    with roles in movies like this and Drive.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 1:15 p.m. CST

    Outbreak meets Traffic

    by seasider

    and they have a lovechild called Contagion. That's what the movie felt like for me. Soderbergh tries to put a new spin on a subject that's been done in other movies. There are a lot of things in the movie that work well but there are also parts where Soderbergh fell into typical character cliches and there was some pretty banal dialogue throughout the film. It's a well made film and I liked most of the characters but overall the movie felt like Soderbergh was going for a concept on a Roland Emmerich type scale but with a independent docudrama "small movie" approach. I suppose for the most part, he succeeded but didn't quite stick the landing.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 2:40 p.m. CST

    Soderbergh has affectionately called this his

    by openthepodbaydoorshal

    "Irwin Allen" movie.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 3:14 p.m. CST

    @kevinwillis, congrats!

    by DreadPirateRoberts

    Way to wear that tin foil hat proudly! Yep, all the "big pharma" companies out there got together and funded this one. And "live virus" snuck out in flu vaccines. Dude, that is not even possible with inject-able flu vaccines, and intentional with inhaled ones. But you go with that.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 4:18 p.m. CST

    Great movie

    by Billy_D_Williams

    just saw it, very very classy...so much better than the Hollywood crap that is the norm these days. this is NOTHING like Outbreak or any other pandemic movie.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 5:21 p.m. CST

    Terrific movie...

    by Hipshot

    A little too "cool" emotionally--a touch more genuine fear would have been useful.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 9:46 p.m. CST

    Wasn't that bad

    by Sirius_crack

    Sure the Cinematography wasn't that good, it had a good all around script with the perfect cast to bring it to the screen. But one of the best things about this movie is their courage. I liked how they had this big cast but killed them off in the first five minutes to an hour.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 10:20 p.m. CST

    playkins = Maaaatt Daaaaaamon

    by Sir Loin

    By all accounts this is a great film. Shutting it down because there are some films with a similar story or theme is YOUR loss.

  • Sept. 9, 2011, 10:23 p.m. CST

    Half my post missing thanks to use of quotes. Thanks, AICN.

    by Sir Loin

    As I said the first time, playkins is quite defensive of a film he hasn't seen. How adorable.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:55 a.m. CST

    sir loin: dipshit.

    by Playkins

    Actually, I DID see it. And yeah, you're missing out.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 7:12 a.m. CST

    I guess I'm immune?

    by sharpie

    Contagion was just very bland to me. There was no kind of climax and no real sense of urgency to me aside from one character's infection, which is handled in about five minutes. And it's a fucking pandemic movie! The whole thing is supposed to be urgency! They bring in something like 9 characters at the beginning, kill off 3, hide 1 away till the last 10 minutes of the movie, have 3 generic scientists doing the *EXACT* same thing in different parts of the country, and then there's Matt Damon and Jude Law. The score and cinematography were fantastic, I will give them that, but if I just wanted to see and hear pretty things I could've dropped acid and gone to see fucking Bucky Larson. The film was bloated with characters and story lines, and to read the critics, they'd have you thinking the movie's just too smart for the average viewer and that they just don't spend time coddling the viewers with expository monologues- no, it just doesn't work.<p><p>Spoiler, if you care, I mean ultimately there's a virus, they cure it, yay.<p><p> Anyway, you've got Jude Law who's some kind of blogger and even though he can’t get his reporter friend at the Chronicle to publish an article about this crazy virus that looks like it’s about to go crazy, supposedly he's famous. We know this because he keeps bragging to some investor guy (who I don't believe ever gets a name) just how many UNIQUE VISITORS his blog gets (seriously, they say the phrase a handful of times). He does something, gets sick… maybe? Cures himself, I think? But then no, apparently he was never sick, and was somehow making money off of it (probably something to do with the investor guy, though who can be sure). <p>There's Matt Damon, who spends most of the movie acting like a slightly more overprotective than typical father figure who seems to have forgotten that his wife and son just died until the last 15 minutes. <p>There's Marion Cotillard, who gets sent to China from the World Health Organization, gets kidnapped, and disappears for the next 1:45. Then we find out she's being held ransom for the cure so a village wont die- To me, this was the most interesting storyline, and the one we got the least of.<p>There's Kate Winslet, who's a epidemiologist who travels around without a mask or gloves on and talks to infected people to try and trace the source of the infection. Guess what happens to her.<P>There's Demitri Martin for some reason... he's a random scientist...<p>Then there's Laurence Fishburne, he works for the CDC, and when he calls his wife (? I think she was his fiancée, they keep calling her his wife, but then he tells Janitor-Man (Also known as Lennon from Lost) that they've set a date for the wedding, whatever…) to tell her to get the hell out of Chicago and come to Atlanta because they're about to quarantine the city, he gets brought up before congress for this, which I‘m not entirely sure what laws that was breaking. Of course we never see this, because they decided to end the movie with an aide telling him about his court date.<p><p>And that, in essence, is the problem with Contagion. The saying goes "show, don't tell" and there's a lot of telling in this movie. They talk about things that are going to happen and have happened off-screen, they talk about and allude to things that would logically be included in the movie, but then for some reason decide against showing them. They talk about Forsythia, which is supposedly a cure, but no one in the government mentions it until about 2/3 into the movie, when they're interrogating Jude Law before the 12 million UNIQUE VISITORS to his blog bail him out. They just talk, and I can take talking, talking can be great, some of the greatest, most well written and directed movies I've ever seen are just talking, but despite the fact that the movie takes place over the course of about 6 months, and a fucking pandemic erupts and gets cured, I left the theater with the distinct feeling that absolutely nothing had happened. But maybe that's just me.

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 7:33 a.m. CST

    cont'd

    by sharpie

    The thing is, Contagion tries to do too much, too many characters, too many storylines, and even too many genres. It's an apocalyptic science, political disease thriller, with an aside for an "a man and his family" storyline, and it ends up not doing any of them particularly well. Among other things, there's no suspense (heavier spoilers: there's a scene where generic scientist #2 skips the animal testing for one of the proposed cures and injects herself with #57 and there's no suspense about it. This is a character we're told we're supposed to care about potentially ending her life in the name of science (SCIENCE!) and she just kind of casually injects herself, then wanders around and by the time she goes to visit her infected dad to tell him what she's doing, you get the feeling you're just supposed to kind of assume it worked without any sort of change happening). There's even a part where they start freaking out because the virus is already adapting (like a week into the epidemic) and they say that it's figuring people out faster than they can figure it out, and in this line, I felt like they laid the groundwork for some serious back and forth in the science community about tackling the virus that's changing faster than they can *find* a cure, much less than the months it would take to mass produce one, but they never really address that after they bring it up

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:36 p.m. CST

    Fine review Nordling, but...

    by abcdefz7

  • Sept. 10, 2011, 12:38 p.m. CST

    except...

    by abcdefz7

    SPOILERS SORT OF I didn't see any mention of the looting, people attacking others for food, not to mention the murders in the night which prompts Damon's character to mount up with a rifle. I don't think the creators' optimism is exactly boundless.

  • Sept. 11, 2011, 4:07 a.m. CST

    Great movie...

    by Executor

    ...to the people complaining (before they've seen it) about similar movies such as Outbreak or conspiracy theory characters -- see the movie. You know not what you are talking about. Or people who complain about certain "spoilers" -- such as gwyneth having an affair. Guess what? SEE THE MOVIE. The fact that she had an affair is revealed literally two seconds into the movie before we even cut to the second shot. See the movie.

  • Sept. 11, 2011, 4:16 a.m. CST

    Sharpie: change your name. You are the opposite of sharp.

    by Executor

    To help you with a few points you didn't understand: (SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN'T SEEN): Forsythia was a homeopathic med that Jude Law's character CLAIMED cured the virus, going as far as pretending he was sick during a podcast, taking the med, then saying he was cured. He made 4.5 million off of this by investing in the drug as he touted it's efficacy. It was never a cure. He was never sick. That is why he was arrested. Securities fraud. All of this is about as obvious as it gets. If you could not grasp this, I can understand how you didn't grasp any of the other more subtle parts of the movie and that, in your mind, the film is as simple as the paragraph summary you wrote. You should have gone to Bucky Larsen like you suggested. It seems more your speed.

  • Sept. 12, 2011, 5:49 a.m. CST

    Executor

    by sharpie

    I'll admit, that was the weakest argument of my issues with movie because it was the storyline I cared about the least, but my point is still valid. It's one thing to leave out minor things where the typical audience will make the connection, it's completely another to leave out scenes connecting major plot points. Fishburne mentions in the interview that Forsythia is "one of many homeopathic drugs we're currently investigating," but how many people are going to take what appears to be a throwaway line seriously? I didn't hate the movie, and I know that's not how it comes off in what I wrote, I didn't exactly feel the passage of time while I was watching it, but I tend to expect more from Soderbergh. I just felt like I was kind of watching this all happen from a room, I didn't get sucked in to the movie, and it's such an easy subject matter to create an atmosphere and involve the viewer in, but it just didn't work for me.