The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

'Contagion' Does Epidemics Justice

3 min read

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A preview of “Contagion” will probably remind any film buff of the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie “Outbreak.”

It’s a good movie, and if you haven’t seen it you really should. However, something that always bugged me about it was that it was never really about the pandemic. It was about Dustin Hoffman fighting his personal and political demons.

The pandemic quickly became little more than a plot device for Dustin Hoffman to stick it to the man.

Steven Sodeburgh’s “Contagion,” however, is no “Outbreak,” and I mean this in the best possible way.

The film features a great cast of stars yet one thing that is made abundantly clear from the start is that the movie has only one focus and that is the pandemic.

“Contagion” charts the course of a devastating disease from beginning to end from the eyes of people caught in the midst of it. Each character gives the viewer a take on a different aspect of the virus and what humanity is doing to combat it. Whether it is Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) in Hong Kong trying to find out how the disease originated, or Erin Mears (Kate Winslett) heading up a rapid response team in the U.S. to try to contain the virus, each perspective serves to give the audience a part of the larger picture. Sodeburgh does a great job of seamlessly connecting the many subplots into one overarching story.

Matt Damon’s character, Mitch Emhoff, gives the film some much needed grounding. He is the only character not actively trying to cure the disease. He is just a single dad trying to keep his daughter safe.

Damon’s is by far the most important role in the film, and it doesn’t hurt that he does such a good job. It is his character that made me truly care what happened. To me, it was his performance that gave the movie its humanity.

Winslett is the films other standout, providing the film with one of its most memorable moments: an impressive feat considering what a comparatively small part she had.

The thing that makes “Contagion” work so well is Sodeburgh’s restraint as a director.

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At no point in the movie do things ever feel overblown. It is a terrifying and devastating pandemic, but never does anyone think that the world is going to end. Matt Damon himself is immune, but he is by no means unique in this way. Of the people who are affected only 1 in 4 die. Now I don’t know anything about biology, but this struck me as very realistic. Humanity was always going to beat this thing. The question was only ever how many would be left.

This to me is far more terrifying than an end of the world disaster just because it is something I can wrap my head around. It felt real.

Something Dustin Hoffman can remember for the next time he tries a pandemic film is how “Contagion” doesn’t have a human antagonist.

None of the responders, no matter how much they all seem to disagree, are ever painted as the good guys or the bad guys. Yes, there are a few opportunists. Some selfish decisions are made. But in the end, it is left up to the audience to decide. Every character went in with good intentions. No one is blameless nor is anyone in the film perfect.

Everything about “Contagion” felt natural. I found myself thinking, “that’s what I would do in that situation.” That is what ultimately made it work so well and why I left the theater so disturbed.

Now this isn’t to say “Contagion” is perfect, it is far from it.

As much as I liked the ensemble cast there were just too many characters and some of them could have been cut completely (Cotillard).

The last act seemed to be building up to one last revelation that never came. The tension never really stopped building but there was never any real payoff. It just kind of petered out. These are minor complaints, however.

“Contagion” is not your average film and after a summer of nothing but formulaic fair, it presents a fresh start for the fall.