Works like the Oceans 11 films show Steven Soderbergh enjoying creating ensemble dramas designed to bring together casts made up of Hollywoods most talented and coolest actors, while Traffic showed Soderbergh tackling a large social issue by breaking it up into three different crosscut story strands illustrating perspectives on the issue from different strata of society and parts of the world. Contagion, which comes from Scott Z. Burns who also wrote Soderberghs The Informant, as well as The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and the Soderbergh produced The Half Life of Timofey Berezin (2006), seems designed to play into Soderberghs liking of big name acting ensembles and crosscut dramas. Imagine if you like a plague outbreak film such as Plague/M3: The Gemini Strain (1978), The Plague (1992), Outbreak (1995) or Contaminated Man (2000) crossbred with the multi-stranded dramas of a Robert Altman film.
Contagion is a film that has been directly born out of the fears that have swept the world in the last few years over the H1N1 Bird Flu Virus and Swine Flu outbreaks. With the fears about these having been way out of proportion to the number of cases of infection, Steven Soderbergh may be accused of making an overly alarmist case about the collapse of society Contagion is very much a film that leaves you with a germaphobic fear of touching ordinary surfaces and the deadly things that may be lurking everywhere from doorknobs and the drinks our waiter gives us or just in shaking hands. That said, Contagion comes with a long list of doctors and CDC scientists credited as advisors that leaves you with no doubt that the Steven Soderbergh and co have done their homework and that what is depicted is frighteningly plausible and possible.
Steven Soderberghs treatment of the outbreak drama is, as always, cool and soberly intellectual. While there are plenty of scenes where he could have done otherwise, Soderbergh focuses on the drama in ways that avoid cliches. One only need compare Contagion to Outbreak Outbreak would no doubt have pumped up the rioting and created seat-edge races against the clock to perfect the antidote but Soderbergh avoids all contrived dramatics. In fact, while the film holds modestly effective acting turns, especially from Laurence Fishburne and the undervalued Jennifer Ehle, it is a film where all present do a remarkable job of tuning down the star power and suborning themselves to propping up a strong script. The emphasis is always on the sobering reality of the contagion. The script focuses on the chill delivery of facts and figures more so than it ever does big dramatic fireworks or images of social collapse.
Perhaps if there is a message inside the portrayal of such a crisis, it is a frustration with the system and how the regulations, funding issues and inter-agency politics prevent effective management and a quick response to an outbreak. There are also digs at pharmaceutical industry pressure groups the corporate villain of the show is notedly also a hedge fund manager (although in reality a hedge fund manager is someone who looks after varied investment portfolios rather than does undercover work for the pharmaceutical industry; mostly this seems an opportunity for the film to tie in association with the recession and make the banking industry part of the villainy). The film also does an acute job of portraying what US media has descended to in terms of the discussion of issues turning into invective and with character assassination supplanting hard fact in the public eye (although I would love to find some industry rep that is prepared to bribe a real world blogger four million dollars just to promote their product).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Ehle) at this sites Best of 2011 Awards).