Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Unity amongst chaos always brings the most success because of the collaboration made possible by putting together the greatest minds this world has to offer. No other situation asks for this more than a pandemic killing hoards of people around the world. Contagion demonstrates the experience of this life-threatening circumstance, while also displaying the different means people will resort to in order to thrive and take advantage of this sensitive time.
After returning from a business trip in China, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) falls ill and dies from a disease that has now spread around the world. With this new threat to humanity, members of the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization begin to determine how to combat this, while others like Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) seek to make a profit out of it all.
Reviewing Contagion while in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic could not be a more harrowing experience because of the unfortunate accuracy and parallels this story has to our current reality. On multiple occasions, I found myself in disbelief on how a film in 2011 could perfectly encapsulate what would occur if a life-threatening disease impacted the entire globe. Every detail feels incredibly horrifying because we’re seeing it play out in real-time today. This is certainly one of those cases where a film gets much better and more relevant with age.
The story within the film splits the perspective among several characters, which does not do much for character development, but the true meaning of the story comes from showing the way people combat it at different levels. Therefore, we receive the perspective of the average person like Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), A CDC director, Dr. Eliis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), and several others as they combat this disease in different ways. Mitch has the most affecting story because his wife became the first casualty and spreader of the disease. Through this perspective, we get the true human pain associated with this disease, outside of just the numbers given at a governmental level. Additionally, through Mitch, we see the fallout all of the news has on the public and what people resort to when they see the scarcity of materials when the world gets upended. This perspective becomes integral to the story because everyone else manages on a larger and mostly political level.
Through different trials and attempts to understand this disease, Contagion demonstrates the largely complicated process of how to combat something of this stature. We see the political perspective, but also the medical where people spend days at a time trying to piece together a way to end this suffering. Laurence Fishburne’s Dr. Cheever represents the responsibility and power one has when privy to information the public does not have. It makes you wonder how much people in these positions of power know and do not want to share because of the public panic or outcry possible.
One thing this film truly nails comes in the form of the massive wave of misinformation and opportunistic behavior by people willing to take advantage of others. Jude Law perfectly encapsulates this with the character of Alan Krumwiede. A blogger willing to fake things in order to have himself held in high regard and make a pretty profit. He uses some random medicine Forsythia and holds it up as the magical cure for the disease with no proper research to back his claims. In 2011, this character might have felt far-fetched, but after witnessing the laundry list of drugs said to have the potency to combat COVID-19 shows this may be the most accurate depiction this film has to offer. It brilliantly shows people will cling onto anything that could provide hope, and there will always be individuals or groups trying to take advantage of it through conspiracy theories or false answers. An unfortunate reality and something very much still happening today and will not cease any time soon.
With so many characters to cover with their contribution to finding and distributing this cure, we don’t spend much time with each of them. It makes the moments where some of them pass due to the disease not as impactful, because at times they feel more like representations rather than actual people. We barely ever get to sit with them and see the humanity they hold. Even with that, the stacked cast assembled for this feature does a strong job to make things work with the limited time they have on-screen. Along with Damon, Law, and Fishburne, there’s also Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Elliot Gould, and so many others. Such a large collection of talent and they all come together well to work with Soderbergh. He knows how to utilize a large collection of cast members and he tells this story in an incredibly effective and efficient manner.
For as much as the experience of the COVID-19 felt unpredictable, after watching Contagion, it appears all of it could be foretold. This film does an excellent job of capturing the despair felt on multiple levels when something as deadly as this disease makes its way through the populace. It takes a Herculean effort within a limited timeframe in order to save a culture willing to tear each other apart upon the slightest convenience. A truly harrowing experience to watch today, in particular, but also an extremely well-made film.