Film Notes: Contagion

By • Sep 9th, 2011
Category: Books, Movies, Music, Televison, Film, Hollywood Films, People, YouTube Videos

How do global health pandemics break out? How do you locate patient zero and quickly find a cure? How do people handle a pandemic events at a personal level? How do governments deal with it at the national and international level? That is basically what director Steven Sonderbergh’s new film “Contagion” is all about.

Packed with a star cast that includes Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Jennifer Ehle the film hovers between being a Hollywood production and a documentary and you come away feeling strangely dissatisfied at one level. “Contagion” is a multi-threaded narrative where some of the threads are not fully addressed, which is one of the challenges of making such a complex film. But then again Sonderbergh has excelled in this kind of complext storytelling like he did as director of “Traffic” or as the executive produced of “Syriana.” However in “Contagion” Sonderbergh does not close all the threads, and some of the sub-plots sit a bit awkwardly with the central narrative.

Contagion” opens with sounds of coughing and a black screen and then we see Gwyneth Paltrow hanging out in a bar at Hong Kong airport waiting to board her flight to Minneapolis, her hometown. All the time the camera follows every hand movement of Paltrow right from reaching out to the finger food in a bowl, to touching her face and so on. The films gathers pace right away and within the first few minutes we travel from Hong Kong’s airport to a Hong Kong apartment complex to London, Minneapolis, Chicago and finally to Atlanta, which is where the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is located. Here we meet Lawrence Fishburne and Kate WInslet, who come up with a game plan to get to the bottom of this rapidly evolving pandemic and locate patient zero and also find a cure for this global health crisis.

The first half of the film is gripping and Winslet does a great job as a CDC officer, who subsequently succumbs to the virus. Somewhere in the second half the film looses steam as we witness CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) struggle to contain the virus and also address allegations they are overlooking a homeopathy solution that can help contain the virus. Pursuing this homeopathic sub-plot or thread is Jude Law, a San Francisco blogger who chronicles his findings on “Truth Serum” that gets millions of unique visitors everyday. This is one of the sub-plots that does not work in the film.

The second sub-plot that does not work very well is the one that involves Marion Cotillar of WHO, who is kidnapped and held hostage for months in Hong Kong. She is freed when WHO gives her kidnappers the first batch of the vaccine.

Where “Contagion” succeeds and sends home a strong message is how quickly a viral epidemic can spread. Sonderbergh takes us behind the scenes and shows how WHO, CDC and governments respond to a global health crisis. But then the films also leaves you with a slightly worrying concern – how well prepared are we in the real world to face such a global health challenge? Did you know you touch your face thousands of times a day? All it takes is touching a germ infected hand, door knob or glass before you become infected. Perhaps, we can all start with a basic precaution – remember to wash your hands. But, then it raises another question and that is the use of touch screen phones and monitors. Do we wash our hands everytime we touch our phones or monitors? See, where this train of thought is headed? Fear spreads rapidly, as does that life threatening virus. In an increasingly globalized world, the kind of scenario that Sonderbergh paints is something that is plausible. The question then is are we prepared for such a crisis?

“Contagion” opens in the US on September 9, 2011.

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Lawrence Fishburne, Jude Law and Jennifer Ehle.
Directed: Steven Sonderbergh
Screen writer: Scott Z. Burns

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