The element of suspense in Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s best movie since Traffic, is unseen yet kills thousands of people in a terrifyingly short amount of time. It’s a “novelty virus” with similarities to previous pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu virus of 1918—only faster, jetting around the globe on credit cards and cell phones.
The film opens with a cough: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minnesota from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling ill, and suddenly collapses while making coffee at home with her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and their young son. Some of Beth’s co-workers, and people she never had contact with from the Far East to London, exhibit the same symptoms, and some of them die. At the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) coordinates an investigation with impressive calm and compassion, guiding his field contact, Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) as she examines victims stricken too quickly to make it to a hospital. It’s Cheever who centers the film, giving a caring face to a vast apparatus fully prepared to respond to unknown epidemics. And it’s the not knowing, from emergency-room doctors to international medical experts, that makes the film a thriller of the first order, with a feeling of barely suppressed panic suffusing the escalating damage the virus inflicts.
The damage is mostly seen through the eyes of Damon’s Mitch, who seems to have a genetic immunity, and who struggles to make sense of his tragedy while protecting his teenage daughter and contending with the chaos that engulfs Minnesota. For no matter how fast the experts discover the disease’s characteristics, it seems to always be a step ahead, mutilating from animal hosts to human to more conducive human receptors with ruthless efficiency. Meanwhile, the virus’ cost in nonhuman terms is conversationally exposed: from the shoppers who won’t be in the stores on Black Friday to the staggering logistics of mass quarantines and deploying vaccinations—if a vaccine can be formulated. A blogger (Jude Law) circumvents the news media with his first-person account, intertwining the legal aspects of virus’s havoc and creating public scapegoats.
The script, by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), keeps pace with the virus, expanding exponentially without losing its edge of possibility, which can also be credited to the pitch-perfect acting. Though Contagion softens its factual hardball toward the end (and perhaps there’s no other way it could avoid becoming just another doomsday scenario), its most chilling—and admirable—aspect is its realism. This is a “what if” movie that engrossingly answers almost as many questions as it asks.