Contagion starts with a cough. The cough belongs to Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). Every trained moviegoer knows that any character who coughs is doomed, and Beth is no exception; she'll be dead 10 minutes into the film. The movie isn't about her, though. It's about the cough. And such is Contagion's power of persuasion that for the rest of your day, and maybe longer, you will look askance at every cough you encounter.
Beth returns from a business trip to Hong Kong with a nasty souvenir: a virus that kills its host in days. Where she got it is a mystery to be solved, and where it goes next is grimly enthralling to behold. With immense skill, the film (directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns) tracks the virus' passage to strangers in the airport, then to Beth's family back home in Minneapolis. Her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is apparently immune to the virus. Others? Not so much.
Fighting back is an army of scientists, doctors, and bureaucrats. There are Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), both of the Centers for Disease Control. Cheever heads the U.S. effort to research, identify, and control the pandemic. Mears is the team leader sent to Minneapolis, where the virus has bloomed. Contagion slowly but surely builds the picture of these CDC investigators as American heroes, akin to a first responder rushing into the crumbling World Trade Center.
Contagion bounces between the macro and the micro impacts of the event — the global and the microbial. The film is a procedural for how professionals would approach such an outbreak. As such, characters represent institutions. The question the film asks is, how does the World Health Organization (in the person of Dr. Leonora Orantes, played by Marion Cotillard) deal with it? How do medical researchers (Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould)? How do the U.S. military (Bryan Cranston) and Homeland Security (Enrico Colantoni)? What role does the internet play (Jude Law)? For that matter, how does the common family man, as represented by Damon, handle the scenario?
The trick Contagion pulls off is taking stock characters, who by design must tell a story through their actions, and breathing life into them. So, how does Cheever — privy to the ultimate in information about the disease and potential vaccines — deal with his girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan), who may be in grave danger? How does Orantes cope with the human toll on a local level when her mission is international and statistical?
The film marches forward as proficiently as the virus. The brilliant film — even within the context of Soderbergh's filmography, it's arguably a masterpiece — doesn't dash between cliffhangers, it has no obvious villain, and it isn't a referendum on our species. It just is. It's emotionally detached, also by design. Characters don't freak out. People speak of dead mothers with mild regret.
Contagion is about professionals holding it together. It leaves the terror to the viewer.