We know that firefighters, police officers, paramedics, rescue workers and other first responders are real-life heroes who deserve our gratitude–and portrayals in big movies. Now we can add health inspectors to the list. In Contagion, the heroes are intrepid virus chasers–from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta and WHO (World Health Organization) of the United Nations and the armies of scientists and workers who support them.

Like fire jumpers, these health professionals drop into areas anywhere on the globe where people are dying from unknown diseases. Their objective is to study the disease as if it were a terrorist under interrogation–locating its origin, tracing the ways it multiplies and then finding the cure that will kill it. Their weapons are computers and compassion. Like other first responders, the virus chasers don’t always make it out alive.

These truths make for great drama. In Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) has put an intense stamp of reality on his cautionary tale by doing something that hasn’t been done in any mainstream movie this year–he has cast women –you know, that movie-neglected 50% of the population–into many of its heroic roles. Not just your average woman either, but some of Hollywood’s A-list femme stars. For this reason, instead of demoting the film’s rating a half-point as I’ve done for many movies this year, I happily bumped up Contagion‘s rating.

Even without its gender equality, Contagion is a movie for today’s audience–engaging, informative, technically superb and suspenseful. It doesn’t pack the emotional wallop I would have liked, but that’s the price it paid, I think, for trying to tell a story with a large cast of characters that takes place all over the world. It loses human intimacy, a film’s stock in trade, in its attempt to show humanity in trouble. While you’re watching Contagion, you are glued to the screen and eager to catch every moment. When it’s over (and be sure to stay for the end credits), you’re glad you just saw a movie that was worth its admission price, but truth is, you’re not planning to see it again.

Gwyneth Paltrow is an executive with a global development company. After doing business in Hong Kong, where she shakes many hands, eats a lot of exotic food and throws a lot of gaming pieces in a local casino, she starts coughing. It’s not enough to make her worried. She still goes off to rendezvous with an old lover during a stop-over in Chicago. Then she flies home to Minneapolis to greet her young son and husband Matt Damon. Soon Gwyneth is violently ill and going into seizures.

She has no memory of all the seemingly insignificant things she did that not only made her sick, but helped her infect dozens of people who in turn infect hundreds, who it turn… You get the idea. An airborne, contagious virus is a terrifying thing. Think swine flu, the Ebola virus, or AIDS–on a horrendous scale that doesn’t harbor itself for weeks or years, but kills within hours.

Gwyneth’s death was so sudden that an autopsy is performed. It turns out that half her brain cells had been turned to mush by a heretofore unknown virus. No one has ever seen such a lethal virus. And then other dying people start showing up–everywhere. While the CDC, portrayed by its director Laurence Fishburne, goes into action, scientists, governments, global corporations, the media and fear mongers do their thing. As director Soderbergh did in Traffic, he breaks down a complicated, interconnected tale by having one character personify the actions of many.

Brave CDC virus chaser, Kate Winslet goes off to Minneapolis by herself to try to convince local officials to take action. (Ordinarily she’d be with a team. Such CDC workers never go off by themselves, but the script writer, rightly so, figured that one lone worker rather than a team, would create more sympathy.) Kate explains to the naysayers the nature of the new virus– think the Black Death on an astronomical scale–but the small town minds are more into protecting their chamber of commerce image than taking action. The victims pile up.

Meanwhile, snaggle-toothed Jude Law, a conscience-less health blogger, is making himself a royal nuisance, and a very rich one, by claiming he has found a homeopathic cure for the virus. He personifies the crass behavior that always comes out in the chaos of tragedy.

It’s time for the United Nations to step in, so researcher Marion Cotillard, again uncharacteristically by herself (and in high heels no less) goes to China to a small village that has been almost entirely wiped out by the virus. The survivors, mostly children, eagerly await the cure they’ve heard has been created.

Back at the CDC another female hero is researcher Janet Ehle, who maps the virus’ ever mutating path on computer screens that make the audience just as frightened as seeing all the dead bodies piled up in the streets. A lot of rhesus monkeys become martyrs, as different cures for the virus are tested, until one little guy finally survives.

In a scene that makes you want to cheer all scientists, especially fearless ones, Janet injects herself with the blood from the surviving monkey– and in Hollywood time-which has no relation to real time–she has found a cure. Bypassing the usual need for human trials, and other time-consuming realities, the cure is readied for distribution.

How all the pharmaceutical company employees, as well as the truckers, and the gas stations workers that fill up their tanks escape the virus in order to deliver its cure is a mystery that’s never explained. Nor are some other basic concerns I had. With 2 out of 5 people on the planet dead or dying, how do farmers harvest their crops and get them to our survivors? Who takes away all the bodies on the streets? How does anybody make enough money to hide behind hidden doors for months like Matt Damon and his surviving daughter do? How do the utility companies manage to deliver electricity so survivors can watch news reports? Oh, well, this is a movie, I must remember, not a PBS documentary on viral Armageddon.

After seeing Contagion, I’m not going to stockpile hand sanitizer. But I dread the coming flu season–I already I feel like I’m going to smack anybody who dares to cough in my vicinity. Folks, you’ve been warned!

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