Before we talk about the odd genius of Steven Soderbergh, we have an obituary. Oscar and Emmy award-winning actor Cliff Robertson passed away this weekend at age 88. Even if you’re unfamiliar with his name, you’ve probably been exposed to his work one way or another (he was the voice of AT&T for the better part of a decade). Robertson was one of those steely-eyed actors who came to Hollywood in the 1960s and worked steadily ever since, playing everything from lead, to heavy, to charismatic bad guy. Most immediately, you might remember him as Uncle Ben Parker in Spider Man 3. He won an Oscar for Charly and played JFK in the film PT 109. So a fond farewell to a great actor with a career that spanned more than six decades.
Steven Soderbergh is one smart guy. With Contagion, he’s made a big, apocalyptic movie about our earth in the event of a viral outbreak that’s simultaneously scary and fascinating. Nor is there anything hokey about it (which probably makes it even spookier). You cannot take your eyes off of this film and it speeds along breathlessly (powered by an awesome score) with very well known actors in little parts contributing to an exhilarating whole. Nor – as many might – does Soderbergh spend a ton of time doling out “blame”. None of that hidden meaning stuff. This is not an indictment on a government or an attack on the scientific bureaucracy (that I could tell). And you know what? There’s something totally refreshing about an epidemic movie that doesn’t single some government body out as The Man upon which we can assign blame. The only message I could detect was be prepared for anything. At any time.
The actors in Contagion are uniformly good, and no one has a really gigantic part. The fact that a bunch of award-winning stars are willing to play extremely small pieces of a massive global puzzle in the service of an ensemble is a true testament to how much they must like working for Steven Soderbergh.
The beauty of the film is its pacing. Because chances are most people know exactly what it’s about going into the theater. The title tips you off right out of the gate. Then, the movie begins with a) someone coughing in darkness and b) a subtitle that reads “Day 2” . This is right in the first two minutes so – pow! – Soderbergh inserts us into a breathless story a day late so we’re already furiously trying to catch up. He knows exactly how to get the blood pressure up immediately. Nor does it slow down.
Matt Damon stars as a concerned husband/ father, Laurence Fishburne is the CDC honcho, Marion Cotillard is a Health Investigator, Kate Winslet is a flustered, overworked physician: all are fragments of a bigger picture. Precisely why, when you leave the theater after watching Contagion, you’re likely to be quite satisfied indeed. Nor will you approach a water fountain or a bowl of mixed nuts on a bar the same way again.
1) Jude Law
2) Matt Damon
3) Laurence Fishburne
4) Bryan Cranston