I sat in a busy coffee shop several years ago when the H1N1 flu-epidemic was making headlines in 2009. Undoubtedly working on my thesis paper (or even a film review), I couldn’t help but notice the coughing around me. What had been the sort of thing that I would never have paid attention to in my day was grabbing my attention in an uneasy way. And as Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) notes early in Contagion, it’s that uneasiness, that fear, which proves to be just as fatal as the epidemic.
What Steven Soderbergh perfectly captures in Contagion is that sense of fear. He opens his film with the sounds of a busy airport, accented by a cough. “Day 2” is stamped in red font on the screen as we see an ailing Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) awaiting her flight. Walking into the film, we gather a sense of what to expect with Soderbergh proceeding in a completely straightforward manner – he focuses on Beth’s hands, what she touches and her exchanges. Soderbergh immerses us into the carnage that will follow by highlighting the how and why of the event. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we see the results of the virus, and therein gather what everyone is up against.
Contagion is not simply focused on the nature of a virus, but rather the elements associated with disease and the privilege bestowed on those of authority. The processing of information becomes just as much a plague to contend with as the disease itself. Jude Law’s role as blogger Alan Krumwiede may seem to be the sort of secondary character that serves to offer a clear line between good and evil, but Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns make him out to be more than he seems – his self-perceived status of martyrdom and his ability to connect with an audience is based on misinformation. By Contagion’s end, the world of privilege sees Krumwiede as a problem, yet his followers continue to worship his words.
I sit in a busy coffee shop yet again as I’m writing this review, and like last time, I can’t help but notice the little things. How long has it been since I cleaned this keyboard? Who touched this cup before I did? Contagion may resonate as a horror film, but it does transcend beyond that. Soderbergh communicates with fear just as he does with humanity – in the film’s closing scene; Matt Damon’s character mourns over a photograph. It’s the sort of scene that takes a micro look into the huge scale of the event. And it’s done with such sincerity and palpability that it’s hard not to be moved from uneasiness to heart-stirring sentiment. That is until someone coughs.