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The Small Vastness of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’

The 2011 movie about a quick-spreading virus is a perfect example of the director’s microscopic interest in bureaucracy and the interconnectedness of the world

Collage of Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and Jude Law from ‘Contagion’ Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

By the time Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), an executive from Minneapolis, arrives home from a business trip to Hong Kong and abruptly dies, two days later, of a seizure, she’s already become the cause of a worldwide event. She’s patient zero for an unknown virus, some devilish mix of genetic material from bat and pig viruses that’s capable of killing a person within three days of infection and of easily spreading from person to person in the meantime.

Steven Soderbergh’s epidemic thriller Contagion, released in 2011, opens on Day 2 of that viral event, and by then, the world’s fate has already been sealed. By the time Beth lands in Minneapolis, she’s already infected an untold number of people. She’s infected a woman from London, who hands Beth her phone after she leaves it at the bar of a Hong Kong casino, and who eventually brings the disease back with her to Europe. She’s infected the bus boy who retrieves her martini glasses and a Chinese businessman she randomly meets and takes a picture with during a wild game of blackjack. She’s undoubtedly infected the old flame she has sex with during a five-hour layover in Chicago, and likewise the work colleague who picks her up from the airport. And when she gets home, she infects her son, who, like her, dies just two days after she lands back home. Twenty-six days into the event, 2.5 million other Americans will be dead, too.

It takes a certain kind of director to open a movie on the virus-splotched face of the founder of Goop—a director, that is, with a confidently sick sense of humor and enough style to back it up. For the record, Contagion isn’t a comedy: To the contrary, it’s pretty gross. But by the time you see Paltrow’s scalp folded forward over her eyes during an autopsy, you rightly wonder if hilariously grotesque images like this are why we’re really here: to see Hollywood A-listers like Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, and many others get ravaged, almost gleefully, by some wild pig-bat disease, much the way that Haywire, Soderbergh’s other release in 2011, was an action movie premised in part on the chance to see Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender get their asses kicked. Soderbergh often makes us see double, in that way. We’re watching complex genre movies with flashbacks and flashforwards, multiple timelines, and clever misdirection. But we’re also, simply, watching movie stars be movie stars, with no pretensions of disappearing into their roles. Somehow, Soderbergh’s narrative antics work only to heighten that effect.

That’s true of Contagion, too. But the release of Soderbergh’s newest movie, the hillbilly heist comedy Logan Lucky, is also a reminder that Soderbergh’s filmmaking groove, of late, has been to toss off smooth little one-offs that are meticulously designed to obscure just how meticulously designed they are. Contagion, which was written by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), is a many-headed hydra, tracking the virus not only as a medical crisis, but also as an international political brouhaha, a public relations disaster, and a strain on the private lives of everyday people. It tracks these strands all at once, around the globe, with the sprawling cast, geographic breadth, and abundance of style I’d typically associate with an international heist thriller or a globe-trotting Fast and Furious sequel.

The movie is huge. Yet it also feels microscopically detailed and small, nimble in its documentation of the joint efforts of panicking citizens, journalists, scientists, politicians, and PR experts to understand what’s going on. As a piece of filmmaking, Contagion is an epic in miniature. The movie is a smooth 106 minutes but feels shorter. And what stands out about it, six years after its release, is that, far from just a storytelling strategy, this sprawling but contained approach is essential to the film’s meaning—and to how Soderbergh makes movies.

When the virus first strikes and institutions like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control get on the case, it’s quickly clear that being mired in bureaucracy is a guaranteed way to lose to this disease, which is only spreading faster.

There are 50 states, the movie reminds us, each with its own health department. And a virus of this scale demands coordinating those offices with, among others, the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the WHO. Fishburne, Winslet, and Jennifer Ehle play doctors working for the CDC who are trying to come to grips, first of all, with what the disease is and how it spreads. Winslet, playing Epidemic Intelligence Service officer Dr. Erin Mears, is dispatched to Minneapolis to investigate the death of Beth Emhoff. Ehle and Fishburne, meanwhile, work to develop a vaccine, while Fishburne also tries to play the game of public relations. He’s up against a blogger, played by Jude Law, whose highly trafficked website is a veritable hysteria machine, making tall claims about a supposed cure for the still-misunderstood virus, and lobbing accusations at insurance companies and the CDC over the slowness of the vaccine. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, Marion Cotillard plays a French doctor for the WHO, who works with Chinese authorities to determine patient zero, whose identity is clear to us but a mystery to them. And back in Minneapolis, Emhoff’s husband and daughter, who are both apparently immune from the disease, watch it all happen. Closed off from the world, they become a perch through which we witness the disease’s consequences unfold.

There’s a lot going on—the above description doesn’t even account for what happens to society itself, which seems to be falling apart at the seams with panic. But Soderbergh, swerving slightly from the epidemic thriller genre as we know it, is a bit less interested in what the virus has to say about “society” and how easily, to name a common trope, we slip into collective madness. This isn't a message movie. Soderbergh is, as ever, interested in process: how systems work, how processes happen, how thought becomes action, how ideas are born. A script like this, which sees the virus as not only a societal nightmare but also a distinctly bureaucratic one, is perfect for Soderbergh, whose sharp angles and pristine frames match the slickly stylish systems his characters are trying to break out of—not unlike the virus, which, as a bold and completely irrational force, is precisely the kind of condition to set the gears of a Soderbergh world in motion. The heroes of this movie are ultimately the individuals who risk operating free of the system: the scientists who break political and medical protocol to study the virus and develop the vaccine, and the people who defy laws to save others.

Soderbergh knows, of course, that this is a thriller about germs, and he absolutely revels in that fact. He immediately gets us thinking about points of contact: quick shots of hands, subway poles, drinking glasses, and other objects, mixed in with close-ups of coughing mouths and bleary eyes, set the tone for widespread panic. As does the weirdness of the disease itself, which starts as a bad cold but soon becomes a phlegmy rash-fest. Before you know it, you’re having a seizure and dying. It’s especially anxious for us in the audience, because our own memories of recent biological events are built into the script. We get bombarded with all the familiar names: H1N1, SARS, meningitis—had it been released a few years later you’d have heard someone name-drop Ebola.

Here, as in those real-life cases, it becomes clear that controlling the spread of information is just as essential as controlling the spread of disease: Contagion, the title, cuts multiple ways. Soderbergh and Burns deploy precise montages—a series of shots of people in boardrooms watching a news report about the virus, for example, that have the same distant tone and timing as the montages of people getting increasingly sick—that create miniature dramas of the contagion at work. We watch things spread. When Fishburne tells his wife the disease is serious, she immediately tells friends, who inevitably tell friends, and soon, Fishburne becomes a public scapegoat for doing what, the movie shows, we all do at a time like this: protect our communities.

What prevails—what links the virus to the spread of information and makes these contagions feel parallel—is the sense that humankind is, above all, a giant network. That could have been the title of the movie: Network. The social sphere is precisely what, as Contagion shows, the spread of an epidemic erodes. People don’t die in a vacuum: they belong to communities. The spread of an infection, meanwhile, becomes an eerily social act. Nothing drives this home harder than a televised suggestion, from the CDC, that the public start to practice “social distancing”: no handshakes, no hugs, no kissing your boyfriend, as Damon’s daughter wants to do. Soderbergh lands the idea with shots of eerily empty public spaces—places like airports and grocery stores—that usually thrive with activity. It’s a movie that emphasizes our connectedness, which can be beneficial when institutions (labs, governments, etc.) collaborate but detrimental when close communities become vulnerable to a plague.

Soderbergh can make multiple facets of narrative, or history, or whatever his chosen domain, feel like they’re coming to a head and happening all at once—and not in a Nolanesque, multiple-timeline way. I think back to Season 1 of The Knick, a show premised on how technological change, medical advancement, and progressive social ideals regarding women and black people in America were tides that all shifted right alongside each other. Contagion, too, makes the world feel connected, which is why it’s so much more vast than it appears to be. The movie more than works as a star-powered thriller—you’re getting the casual best of everyone here, especially Fishburne, Winslet, and Ehle. But it’s also, like so many of Soderbergh’s movies, a feast of insightful, intellectually rich filmmaking. Contagion is a small movie, but it harbors vast things.