The Drama of Death: Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion

By Daniel Garrett

Contagion by Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, and Sanaa Lathan
(Screenplay by Scott Burns)
Warner Brothers, 2011

There may have been a time in which the arty folk and the money folk were in different casts and crews in film, but that time is not now: some of the best artists are to be found in large-scale entertainments, giving depth and weight to work that might have been easier to dismiss without them. Contagion is a disaster film at the core of which is infectious disease; and it is genuinely informed by science and politics, and features talented actors such as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Laurence Fishburne, directed by the gifted, idiosyncratic Steven Soderbergh. The disease occurs at the connection of three different species; it spreads quickly and terribly, inspiring government response and public panic, while plowing through very particular lives. Human commitment and vulnerability are acknowledged, are part of the story we see, as doctors work to understand the disease and find a treatment, and families are torn apart by sickness and grief. It often feels very real, but, of course, this is a movie; and so some of the dialogue is obvious—a scientist (Fishburne) tells his wife (Lathan) to come to him but do not reveal the urgency to anyone, and she subsequently tells a friend who tells everyone; another scientist (Ehle) is a good daughter and a selfless doctor, and is told so more than once; a janitor (John Hawkes) reminds the well-placed male scientist that he too has family he is concerned about (disease and fear move across class and ethnicity). Jude Law plays an internet journalist spreading false information, exploiting the epidemic for fame and money; and, possibly too crudely, is given bad teeth as evidence of his flaw, although he is both appalling and fun to watch. Some of the resolutions of the story are surprising, such as the death of two well-placed women; but others are not, as in a protective father’s acceptance of a young man in his daughter’s life, and a powerful man’s sacrifice for a poor boy. The film reminds the viewer that the global reach of industrial and marketing practices is subject to the wildness of nature, and something dangerous can be born; and shows how humanity is likely to respond with reason and science, with greed and hysteria, with compassion and selfishness. The film is a major effort, and looks good, but I did not think of it as beautiful; and while I can admire all the actors in it, some of whom are among my favorites, I was not surprised that Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress of charm and cool temperament, of intelligence and instinct, was the alpha and omega of the film. She is a complicated figure; and, here is a figure of both joy and destruction, an emblem of intimacy and danger, a manifestation of the endless human puzzle.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, and has begun focusing on his internet log devoted to visual arts, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.”