Remember this time last year, when the media were convinced that swine flu was going to cut a swath through the population? It turned out to be a damp squib, but what if our worse fears had come true, and a virus — perhaps a frighteningly plausible super-strand mix of H1N1 meets bird and swine flu — was spreading that threatened to kill hundreds of thousands of people on Earth?
Well, if you took the breadth and scope of "Traffic" or "Syriana," tidied up the writing, and found a subject matter that terrified you relentlessly for two hours, you'd have something close to "Contagion." Burns, who wrote the script for the previous Soderbergh/Damon collaboration "The Informant," as well as "The Bourne Ultimatum," has clearly done an enormous amount of research, and it's thoroughly, horrifyingly conceivable throughout, but it's also as much about the way that information can spread virally in the Web 2.0 age, as it is about the spread of the virus. Burns ties these dual themes together in the final pages, the two dovetailing in a hugely satisfying way.
We first meet Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Beth Emhoff, as she flies back from a business trip, along with a casino worker in Hong Kong, Li Fai, and a Ukranian supermodel in London, Irina Modelskova. Almost immediately, all three are struck down by a mysterious ailment — Li Fai meets a particularly messy end in downtown Hong Kong after hallucinating in the streets. Beth's husband Thomas (Matt Damon) is forced to care for his wife, and soon his step-son, as her condition worsens.
The virus spreads, first through the Emhoff's native Minneapolis — and very plausible through the unsanitary public school system where kids readily share infections as it is — and then to Chicago, and the rest of the U.S. The story opens on Thanksgiving weekend, almost the worst possible time a virus could break out, considering the amount of travel going on (airplanes being practically an incubator for common cold spreading), and, as one character puts it, "It's the biggest shopping weekend of the year." while simultaneously the virus, and the fear it causes, spreads through the world. The scope is enormous — over the course of the script, we visit China, Dubai, Japan, Switzerland, The United Kingdom, Iran, Brazil, Russia and Malaysia, making Soderbergh's upcoming globetrotting actioner "Knockout" look positively earthbound in comparison.
Fascinatingly and again, plausibly frightening, political and corporate interest continually get in the way of the doctors' attempts to stop the disease, from the lawyer representing a mysterious magnate who offers Emhoff millions of dollars for a sample of his blood, to paranoid fears of terrorism from Homeland Security. But regular bureaucracy big and small causes natural obstacles as well from world leaders foolishly worrying about virus patents and the sharing of key information while thousands die, to the FedEx guy who innocently closes up shop early, failing to rush out the urgent CDC package that we later discover could have potentially saved hundreds of lives.
It's slightly less overtly Political, with an upper-case P, than, say "Traffic," in that there's no specific message being pushed, but it does land its blows nicely when it throws them — particularly at pharmaceutical companies, and the patenting of drugs and vaccines. Like "Syriana," however, there's a laudable global, geo-political context ingrained in the fissure of the story, showing the ways in which a tiny action can have enormous repercussions across the world. While expansive, and global "Contagion," doesn't forget the personal either and the script touches upon very humanistic situations all tied to the complex, interweaving story including infidelity, grief, and the terror of losing one's family that any one on the planet should be able to easily relate to.
The disease isn't some sci-fi super-plague; it only causes death in a certain percentage of those who come in contact with it, but it is enough to cause widespread mass panic and hysteria once word gets out. As we said above, the script's as much about the way that information and rumor can travel from person to person, and even the most well-meaning characters make bad decisions, even if it's only to protect their loved ones.
The film is a race against time, the stakes are incredibly high throughout the film, and Burns' script never lets up — you're never allowed the opportunity to stop and catch your breath, which gives it a tight focus lacking in Stephen Gaghan's writing on "Traffic" and "Syriana." This isn't to say that there's a lack of texture or emotion to the film (the latter in particular is something that people often complain about in regards to Soderbergh's work); while its certainly procedural in tone, there are plenty of sequences of humanity sprinkled through the script that tethers the tale in the hear and now.
For the most part, there's some very good roles set up for the A-list cast. Paltrow's character, for example, should prove a nice twist on the suburban wife. Cotillard and Winslet carry the bulk of the investigative work, and as a result will probably be among the least showy parts, but, by casting actors that we haven't seen before in similar roles, Soderbergh should keep it feeling fresh.
Matt Damon, meanwhile, has a part somewhere between his roles as the grieving corporate father in "Syriana" and a non-mentally-ill version of the family man he played in "The Informant," and is the beating heart of the this vast, ensemble piece. Interestingly, the closest thing that the piece has to a lead is Cheever, the part set for Laurence Fishburne; like many of the principle roles, it's something the actor, currently toplining "CSI," can really get his teeth into. It's another authority figure, to be sure, but it's one with some really interesting shades to it, and may well see the actor recognized during awards season.
Perhaps the most colorful part goes to Jude Law. Krumwiede, the ruthless blogger, is a part that Law could have a lot of fun with (the actor is always better with moral ambiguity, a la "The Talented Mr. Ripley" or "Road to Perdition," than he is with leading man parts), but the character is somewhat less well drawn than the others. It's the closest thing to an outright villain of the piece, and, although the character makes some important points, they're frequently undermined by his actions.
Otherwise, our only other concern is that the script is so up-to-the-minute (our draft is dated 1/14/09), with references to the overhyping of H1N1, and to Twitter, that by the time it reaches theaters, by next summer at the very earliest (and we imagine it'll be held back for awards season), it could feel like old news. Soderbergh & company had better get a move on, because we think that, if it holds up to its promise, it could be a major awards contender (especially for Burns' sprawling tapestry of a a screenplay), combining the artistic and commercial sides of Soderbergh's career in the same manner that landed him the Best Director Oscar back in 2001. Certainly, based on his work here, Burns more than deserves to be among the nominees when the time rolls around.
Update: We've been informed that Gwyneth Paltrow actually plays Damon's wife, while Kate Winslet plays Dr. Erin Mears and we've revised it in the piece. We've also been told that Burns will be taking one more pass at the script before it goes in front of cameras so expect some of the emotional notes to be warmed up in time for shooting.