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A thriller that deserves the name.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Contagion

Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures

Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

The best Hollywood movie in ages, Contagion takes a subject that could be unbearably disturbing—the spread of a worldwide pandemic—and turns it into a dazzling detective story. We begin with Gwyneth Paltrow at an airport bar in Chicago, coughing a little. We cut to a young man in Hong Kong sweating as he leaves his workplace; a Japanese man on a plane breaking into the same sweat; and then Paltrow returning home feverish to Minneapolis to her husband, Matt Damon, and young son, whom Damon must pick up from school the next day with a 101 fever.

Director Steven Soderbergh, working from a masterfully conceived and extraordinarily intelligent script by Scott Z. Burns that should win an Oscar, subtly directs our eyes to the merest press of a finger—handing a credit card to a waitress, pulling the handle on a door. Kate Winslet, who plays an epidemiologist trying to contain the outbreak, tells a disbelieving politician that we touch our own faces more than 2,000 times a day, or a few times every minute (try hearing that and not counting).

Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer as well, has shot the movie in deliberately chilly tones reminiscent of the lighting in a hospital. This gives Contagion a somewhat clinical feel, especially as the authorities at the Centers for Disease Control (led by the likable Laurence Fishburne and the great British stage actress Jennifer Ehle) describe to others the way a contagion spreads.

That cool, clinical tone turns out to be a blessing, because if Contagion were more emotionally intense, the scale of the catastrophe we’re watching unfold might prove intolerable to watch. There have been some thrilling disease movies before this one, dating back to the best of all, 1950’s Panic in the Streets, a propulsive thriller shot by Elia Kazan on the streets of New Orleans in which disease hunters have to track down a crew of thugs (led by Jack Palance and, of all people, Zero Mostel) who killed a plague-riddled immigrant before the disease spreads to the entire city.

What makes Contagion different from Panic in the Streets and the movies that followed it is that it’s not a triumphant story about how the disease was contained but rather a full-bore portrait of how it spreads and what happens when it does. What Soderbergh and Burns have done is to combine the sangfroid of CSI with the kind of dread you experience during the early going of a zombie movie. The combination proves inspired.

This is, in many ways, the movie that has made the best use of 9/11 so far, though the date is never mentioned. The new reality of American life after the attacks makes the kinds of large-scale actions we see and hear about—the closing of state borders, tanks on the streets and highways of Chicago, the president working in secure underground quarters whose location is undisclosed—seem not only plausible but likely in a comparable circumstance. Indeed, we hear Fishburne, the CDC director, tell CNN’s Sanjay Gupta that he’d rather err on the side of saving lives in words almost exactly the same as those used by Michael Bloomberg in August when announcing the “mandatory evacuation” of parts of New York City due to Hurricane Irene.

Just as it would have seemed ludicrous for an American politician to use such a term before 9/11 but was hardly remarked upon when it happened, so the kind of mobilization we see in Contagion would have seemed like a ludicrous expression of Hollywood paranoia about the evil machinations of the all-powerful military had it been attempted before.

Instead, Contagion is a portrait not of government’s power but of its relative powerlessness. Concerned about safety, Fishburne orders that all experiments on the disease take place within CDC headquarters, but an academic disobeys the orders and makes the first major discovery about it. A rogue blogger who seems to be based on Julian Assange (Jude Law, in the movie’s best performance) delivers impassioned libertarian speeches about the profiteering of drug companies as he promotes a holistic cure in which he has his own profit interest—and the Department of Homeland Security can do little or nothing about it.

The portrait of the Assange-like blogger, in particular, shows how Burns and Soderbergh made a conscious decision to challenge the sorts of clichés we’ve come to expect from pop-culture works like Contagion. The disease is not the result of a government weapons program (which is where the plague that kills off 99 percent of the world’s population in Stephen King’s The Stand comes from). It’s not due to runoff from a nuclear-power plant or the misbehavior of Big Pharma.

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